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THE BIG DIG

Divided ground project - little else - links Kerasiotes, Salvucci

They hate each other, and you can sense it the minute they walk into the room.

They are the secretary of transportation under Gov. Weld, James Kerasiotes, and the man who preceeded him in the job under Gov. Michael Dukakis, Frederick Salvucci, two men who personify vastly different political philosophies.

Kerasiotes is fiercely pro-business and preaches Weld's religion of privatization -- saying he runs the Massachusetts Highway Department like "it was my own business."

Salvucci is a "Dukakoid," obsessed with policy, procedure and the politics of consensus. He believes profoundly in government's responsibility to lead and what he calls "the dignity of public employees."

Kerasiotes is husky and blunt, famous for keeping a small hatchet on his wall when he was busy firing a string of Salvucci's holdovers. When you get fired by Kerasiotes, you get "whacked," as he puts it.

Salvucci is thin and brooding. At a recent meeeting of the Massachusetts Port Authority, Stephen Tocco, the Republican chairman and Salvucci's political nemesis, said after Italy had just made it to the World Cup finals: ''There is finally something we can agree on, Fred, an amendment wishing Italy the best."

Replied Salvucci: "I would not in good conscience be able to support that on the grounds the team is owned by a fascist."

Kerasiotes, who lives in Medfield, is an avid collector of baseball memorabilia, talking eagerly about the investment potential of, say, a card from Carl Yastrzemski's rookie year with the Red Sox. Salvucci is a classic engineering type, who sports a belt that is always twisted off to one side. He is a vegetarian, still lives in the triple-decker his father owns in Brighton, and teaches transportation studies at MIT.

But there is one thing -- perhaps only one thing -- these two men agree on: the dire need for Massachusetts to build the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel project. Salvucci was the visionary of the project, but Kerasiotes has taken on the job of actually carrying it past concept and into reality.

At the Globe's request, the two men put their differences aside for one day and came together recently for a three-hour interview.

They traced Massachusetts' history of transportation over the last 30 years, and discussed the path to political consensus that secured the funding for the Big Dig. They also sparred over their differing views on how best to run the project, and on how they define "privatization," a key concept since a joint venture comprised of two private engineering firms -- Bechtel Corp. and Parsons Brinckerhoff Inc. -- is managing the $7.7 billion project.

Following are excerpts from the interview:

SALVUCCI: This isn't an issue of denigrating public employees. I was a public employee for a long time. I believe in the dignity of their work. But they've got their arms more than full. This is a one-time, huge project that calls for different skills. This is exactly the kind of a place where you bring in a Bechtel or a Parsons Brinckerhoff. You do have to monitor them. But the most important role of your monitoring is to make sure that you're getting what you paid for, and yeah, you don't want them going crazy on costs. You need a lot of public employees to do that. You're always a little bit understaffed in the public sector.

KERASIOTES: And I would say you could manage this job with less people than we currently have. And I think that when you guys are talking about this issue, the issue isn't oversight. The issue is accountability. Whether it's Bechtel- Parsons or whether it's the Mass. Highway Dept., accountability still rests with the respective secretaries for the execution of the project. They live or die, and their governor lives or dies, by what has been done in their name here. I think the question you guys should ask yourself everytime somebody comes to you and says we need more oversight of the project is: 'If I devote a level of resource to that inspector general, to that legislative committee, to that whatever it is, is that going to clarify or fuzz who's responsible and improve or degrade the product they're delivering?' That's what the question is on oversight.. . . The role of the state employees is to define the scope of this project and to monitor the delivery of the product.

SALVUCCI: I believe you tend to be understaffed in the public sector and that's a function of the political reality we live in.

KERASIOTES: And we disagree -- radically.

SALVUCCI: And you say you have enough? You absolutely have enough?

KERASIOTES: Yes. . . .I don't understand what you're talking about. Basically what you have to do is you have to say either we want to do this or we don't. Once you decide that you want to do it, you say 'What is the most practical way in which to approach it?' Like I would do in my business. I would go out and I would hire someone to do something that I need to get done. Now, what level of oversight am I going to employ when I hire a contractor to build, say, my office space? Very little. All I want to know is, is my office going to be where I want it to be? Are the walls going to look like I want them to look? And am I going to be comfortable when I sit down in it? Other than that, I don't want to expletive know about it. . ..And why is it that in Massachusetts we have to assume that somehow, because we bring private contractors into the picture, that the public is somehow going to be abused? That's nonsense. Let me tell you when the public gets abused. The public gets abused when too many bureaucrats and too many oversight agencies and too many wiseguys and too many partisans start taking shots and saying, 'I could do it better.' . . . What we ought to be doing is saying, 'This is important. Let's get it done.'

SALVUCCI: How do you keep an eye on such a big thing? Uniformly the answer comes back that you do it with a model like this one (with Bechtel/Parsons.) You organize what you hope is a smart client staff to work with Bechtel- Parsons so that the client knows what's going on and can steer it.. . . The big picture is, are you going to get what you're paying for? . . . On the timetable question . . . it's up to you just how you deal with it. When you're. . .Kerasiotes, myself from the past, and you set a timetable on a cost, and that is out on paper, you build that out of a whole bunch of information, and there's uncertainty on every item that goes in it. . ..everyone assumes there's some wiggle room. . . Why, because we're gaming people? No, because there are hundreds and hundreds of people who have to make decisions on time to get something to happen, and somewhere along the way there's always going to be some slippage. If you don't hold, if you don't portray what you think is realistic but tough, optimistic on cost, then you're sending the signal, hey, cost is no object, time is no object, manana is OK, and you'll totally lose control of this thing.

KERASIOTES: One of the things that I know that you wanted to accomplish here is to get to some of the differences between us, and that was largely a focus of what was going on here today. What we didn't spend a lot of time talking about are the similarities in the things that we do agree on. And I've said it 100 times and I'm going to say it again: This guy (points to Salvucci) developed, pushed and sold a project that is a marvel and spelled nothing but good news for the region, for the city. . . .I think his program is the right one and I'm proud to be part of it.

SALVUCCI: We do have a lot of disagreements politically, but I think that a lot of the project we agree on. . . . I think the reason we're all here is

because it's not just about transportation throughout the city. In this city you've got the financial capital of New England, you've got the political capital of the state, you've got the best universities and hospitals in the world. . . . You've got the international airport that serves New England, you've got the biggest seaport facility in New England, you've got the Bruins, the Celtics, the Red Sox, and name a couple of others. You can walk from one of those facilities to another; they're within two miles of each other. There's no other place like it in America. Those are nice things; they're also economic assets. . ..One of the things that makes this city so exciting is this sort of concentration. If it comes to gridlock, if the center comes to gridlock, we've got all our eggs in this basket. . . .It's essential that this project work when it's done, and I think it's going to make things a lot better; it's essential that it work during the construction so that business functions and payrolls are met. . . And it's also real important that people feel good while it's happening."

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