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THE BIG DIG

Commitments to foes raise Artery price tag

Last of three parts

The cost of the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel project would not have hit $7.7 billion, where it is officially pegged today, were it not for hundreds of expensive mass transit and other environmental promises that were made to buy support -- or at least silence -- from opponents of the project.

This process of negotiating "mitigation," as it is offically called, for Boston's huge highway project represents a case study of the consensus- building process necessary to win approval for a multibillion-dollar public works project today.

Neighborhood groups, environmentalists, developers, parking-lot owners, politicians, gadflies -- all of them sought what they could get during the 1980s, when they realized that the state could be pressured into paying for their favorite causes if they would drop their opposition to the mammoth project.

The process was fueled by the fact that much of this negotiation -- some today look back on it as approaching extortion -- was taking place frantically, as Gov. Michael S. Dukakis' transportation guru and project progenitor, Frederick P. Salvucci, was a lame duck, desperate to get official state approval before Gov. Weld took office in January of 1991.

Former US Rep. Brian Donnelly, a Democrat who was then serving on the House Public Works Committee, later told project historian Alan Altshuler: "This was really what we down in Washington called 'blood money for siting decisions,' but what they call 'mitigation packages.' "

The largest mitigation deal of them all was an agreement with the Conservation Law Foundation, a nonprofit environmental group, wherein the state committed itself to a string of improvements to the MBTA system that are projected to cost $3.6 billion by the time of their scheduled completion in the year 2010. The $3.6 billion expense, which is not part of the $7.7 billion artery/tunnel project, will be shared between the state and federal governments in a ratio not yet determined.

These transit projects, most of which had already been in some stage of planning, included restoration of the three Old Colony commuter lines and extension of the commuter line from Framingham to Worcester. They were sold to the public as a strategy to clean up the air that project opponents contended the new Central Artery would foul.

But eclipsed during the grab-bag mentality that dominated the discussion was evidence that a wider, better designed, depressed artery would itself improve air quality. Also generally ignored was research showing that rail construction is so expensive that the return in clean air benefits is minimal compared to other strategies to reduce pollution.

Douglas I. Foy, Conservation Law Foundation executive director, wrote in 1991 that "the public needs to understand that this is not a $5 billion road project but a $9 billion transportation project." Today, the "road" project is up to almost $8 billion, and no one can say with authority how much it, and the rest of the mitigation commitments, will cost.

Recently, for the first time, all of the greenspace, transit, research and environmental promises made to pave the way for the artery and tunnel were assembled in a database by project officials.

The commitments are now thought to number about 1,100, according to Robert R. Albee, director of construction services for the Massachusetts Highway Department. The cost: an estimated $2.8 billion of the current $7.7 billion project cost.

A 140-page computer printout of all the promises made tells the story, from the project's vow to "minimize and mitigate impacts to the wetlands of the Millers River," next to the Charles River in Cambridge, to its promise to ''protect the Bloom, South and Gurney Inc. building from vibration and settlement," on Farnsworth Street in Boston.

Project Director Peter M. Zuk recently got the $2.8 billion figure from Albee and was not surprised. "I knew it was in that area. . ." he said, ''That's the floor, not the ceiling."

Even categorizing the various agreements is difficult. Some are paid for entirely by the artery and tunnel project, which is funded 85 percent by the federal government and 15 percent by the state, at least through 1996. Other agreements are of no cost to the project itself but, like plans to expand commuter station parking lots, must be paid for by the state.

Albee, who oversaw collection of all commitments made since the first big bunch in a 1985 environmental statement, breaks them down into three categories: commitments it took to get the project approved by the state or federal government, requirements of environmental agencies, and finally the ones needed to reduce the impact of construction itself.

Together, they are estimated to add up to more than a third of the projected cost of the whole project.

Albee said that means a bare-bones project like the one the state unveiled in the mid-1980s -- without a costly redesign of the Charles River crossing, without tunnel covers in South Boston, without high-occupancy vehicle lanes -- could still be built today for less than $5 billion.

"Is mitigation a good thing? . . . Yes, it's a good thing, it's an essential thing," said Salvucci, who some say gave in too easily when he committed the state to expensive transit expansion and did not identify where the funding would come from. However, referring broadly to some of the project's more zealous critics, he added: "When you get someone with a

financial interest, who is prepared to spend a million dollars on downtown law firms, then you have tremendous potential to disrupt the project."

WISH LIST PROVES TO BE A POWERFUL TOOL

The Conservation Law Foundation agreement, unique even in an environmentallyconscious state, was included as a legal requirement in then- Environmental Affairs Secretary John DeVillars' certificate of approval in 1990 after the foundation threatened to sue.

A wish list of demands had been put together by the foundation, and fashioned into a lawsuit that could potentially have killed the artery and tunnel project. "And then people started putting price tags on it," recalls Foy. "To be honest, in the early stages it was not something that we thought was our responsibility" to add up the cost. "First, it was, 'We're going to do it all and it doesn't cost very much.' Then it was, 'We're going to do it all, and it's really quite expensive.' "

Environmentalists were worried that the foundation agreement, negotiated in the waning days of the Dukakis administration, would not be enforced by the new Weld team. But after some negotiations, Weld's secretaries of Transportation and Environmental Affairs at the time, Richard Taylor and Susan Tierney, signed the accord in 1991. Also parties to the agreement were MOVEMass 2000, a transportation group, and two other environmental groups, 1000 Friends of Massachusetts and the Boston Greenspace Alliance.

"The CLF agreement . . . had as much to do with getting CLF to be neutral or supportive of the project as it had to do with identifying real impacts of the project," said Douglas M. McGarrah, who worked in transportation in both the Dukakis and Weld administrations.

Other notable and costly mitigations included promises by the project to pay $150 million to the city of Cambridge, $80 million to the Metropolitan District Commission to build a park along the Charles River, and at least $10 million to Boston.

Salvucci once described how Boston City Hall officials under Mayor Ray Flynn strong-armed commitments from the project, comparing it to "delivering some chunk of mastodon meat back to the tribe."

Today, project officials have even found themselves having to "mitigate" their mitigation -- as they did in the case of Spectacle Island in Boston Harbor. The 100-acre island, a former landfill and destination for 2.6 million cubic yards of dirt from project excavation, is to be turned into a park. Already, the cost is running more than $100 million.

Yet the loss of wetlands at the Spectacle Island dump site was deemed to be environmentally damaging, so the state agreed to make amends somewhere else -- by fixing up the graveled-over Rumney Marsh in Revere. That will cost about $5 million for the restoration of 14 acres of wetlands.

As construction moves into the congested urban landscape, $450 million will be spent on temporary lanes, curbs and sidewalks. Without that, the downtown business community could never have been persuaded to support the artery depression. Police will make an estimated $60 million in overtime on special details under a provision of the traffic management plan.

"Keeping business alive downtown," Albee said, is a category that involves thousands of small items to make as many people and companies happy as possible. The state recently signed a $7 million two-year contract with the City of Boston to keep track of various neighborhood concerns.

State Sen. Therese Murray (D-Plymouth), formerly in charge of tracking construction mitigation for the state, said it is a conflict of interest for someone like Albee, who is involved in managing the project, to be monitoring its performance on mitigation commitments.

"It's a mistake," Murray said. "Mitigation must be separate from construction and design."

Anne B. Fanton is perhaps a more objective tracker of mitigation on the project. As director of the Central Artery Environmental Oversight Committee, a coalition of public and private groups that keeps track of the mitigation promises, she recently listed 113 of the largest and costliest commitments in four categories: transit, air quality, traffic management and open space.

The committee, which considers itself independent although it receives some state funding, found that 15 of those commitments are considered already met; 47 are on track; 17 are behind schedule but progressing; 28 are listed as languishing and on six, nothing has happened.

But fewer than 50 of the 113 are directly related to the project. The majority, while necessary to gain environmental or popular approval, have little or nothing to do with the actual roadways, tunnels and bridges that will make up the finished project. Among the mass transit commitments, for example, are studying the feasibility of water transportation to the North Shore, and paying for Lynn's Central Square bus terminal and parking improvements.

Dust and odor control are mitigation items that Fanton does not monitor. Nor does she watch the rat-control program, an expense of $5 million during the 20-year project.

CASTING A CAREFUL EYE ON NEW COMMITMENTS

Foy, like most, even those closely involved, cannot put a final number on the costs of the commitments. And, although he argues the transit improvements are needed, he admits that some of the air-quality benefits are likely to be minimal. "I think maybe that's true for some stuff," he said.

Fanton, who believes most of the mitigation commitments were wise investments, nevertheless recognizes limits. "Commitments were made in order for the project to be approvable," she said. "You need to find a balance in continuing to seek more and more mitigation."

Project director Zuk echoed those comments and said there may even be ways to hold costs down. "In terms of completing the project, we need to keep this commitment -- but we need to be very careful about making new commitments."

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