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Not all gleams at Big Dig

City will have to wait as infrastructure ages

Like moving through a house that has been partially remodeled, driving in Boston these days is a study in contrasts.

A motorist headed for the North Shore travels through the completed Big Dig tunnel and over the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, over graceful new loop ramps, and through the City Square underpass and then confronts concrete barriers, a patchwork road surface, and the tarp-draped dull green girders of the Tobin Bridge.

"Driving on the Tobin is a rough ride, compared to the Zakim, which is so smooth and clean," said Senator Steven A. Baddour. "You can't help but notice the difference."

On the eastbound approach of Storrow Drive, the tunnel had to be closed earlier this week because of flooding and a power outage, making the half-century-old roadway pitch dark and impassable.

As the $14.6 billion Big Dig nears completion, the age of the transportation infrastructure that surrounds the gleaming project is becoming more and more obvious. But it looks as though Boston will have to live with the situation for a while. In part to counter the lingering perception that the city has soaked up funds for years for the Big Dig, lawmakers inserted millions in this year's transportation bond bill for projects that are mostly outside Boston, in such places as Ludlow, Springfield, and Belchertown.

Despite his appreciation for the need to upgrade the aging infrastructure that abuts the Big Dig, Baddour, cochairman of the Transportation Committee, said: "There are all sorts of those same needs, across the state. I have to say my priority is now outside of Boston."

Governor Mitt Romney has promised to refurbish existing infrastructure as part of his "Fix it First" policy, which includes roads and bridges in and around Boston. But state transportation officials know that other parts of the state need attention.

"Boston is not benefiting disproportionately from our spending," said Jon Carlisle, spokesman for Daniel A. Grabauskas, state transportation secretary, who pointed out that $456 million was spent statewide last year on roads and bridges and that the governor recently agreed to spend at least this much in the coming year. "This is a rising fiscal tide that is lifting all boats."

The Tobin Bridge, which is run by the Massachusetts Port Authority, is in the midst of a multiyear, $112 million repainting and refurbishing project, as are sections of Storrow Drive. Other infrastructure hot spots on the outskirts of the Big Dig include Route 1A and Boardman Street, a congestion-prone intersection with signals that city officials would like to see replaced with an underpass, as well as the Longfellow Bridge and North Washington Street bridge to Charlestown, both badly in need of overhauls.

James Gillooly, deputy commissioner for planning at the Boston Transportation Department, said that Interstate 93 south of the city -- from the Big Dig's southernmost boundary, including access to Massachusetts Avenue and the Longwood medical area -- also has unsolved congestion problems.

"If you look at the limits of the project, you don't have to go too far before you say, 'Hey, we could use some improvement, here and here,' " Gillooly said.

When transportation projects are evaluated objectively, as the Romney administration has vowed to do, Boston does well on the merits, he said. Boston projects proportionately relieve congestion, improve public safety, and have tie-ins with transit, he said.

Drivers are seeing construction work throughout Boston as they emerge from the Big Dig, including:

The reconstruction of Cambridge Street, which will cost $5.1 million.

The reconstruction of Dartmouth Street, at $2.2 million.

The overhaul of the Sullivan Square rotary area, at $15.2 million.

The reconstruction of the Congress Street bridge, at $16.2 million.

The overhaul of the Longfellow Bridge, at an estimated cost of $70 million.

The Summer Street bridge in South Boston has also been redone, at a cost of $16.7 million, completed last summer.

The road network leading to Boston is also busy with work crews, including:

The Neponset River bridge to Quincy, at $10 million.

Widening of Route 3 from Route 128 to the New Hampshire border, at $385 million.

Adding lanes in both directions on Route 128 from Dedham to Wellesley, at $150 million.

The state is also resurfacing Route 1 from Lynnfield to Danvers and I-95 from Georgetown to the New Hampshire border, and it plans to install new cameras and message boards and traffic sensors along I-93 and I-95 leading to the city.

Still, the transportation bond bill, drafted every three years in Massachusetts, reflected a more statewide approach to the future, with authorization of $260 million for projects in Ludlow, Acton, Chesterfield, Rutland, Worcester, Scituate, Marshfield, Medford, Belchertown, Springfield, and Malden. One factor was that for the first time in many years, the chairmen of the Transportation Committee were both from outside Boston. Baddour is from Methuen and state Representative Joseph Wagner is from Chicopee.

The Legislature authorized spending $2.5 billion on roadway and transit projects over the next three years, but Romney said he plans to spend about $1.2 billion. The difference is almost entirely contained in such transit projects as the extension of commuter rail to New Bedford and Fall River. The Legislature sought to borrow money to get those projects underway; the administration says it needs more time to figure out how to pay for them.

For the remaining spending on roads and bridges, both Romney and the Legislature agreed to spend $450 million annually until 2012 on transportation projects other than the Big Dig, which is still being paid off.

"We're an older, industrial state," Wagner said. "Our roads take a beating, given the natural elements, more than Southern or Western states. The roads are crucial for commerce, and they cost money to maintain."

He pointed out that the Legislature recently established a transportation finance commission, which will look for new sources of revenue for roads and transit. "What this highlights is our inability to meet needs, inside or outside Boston," Wagner said.

Anthony Flint can be reached at flint@globe.com.

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