The Big Dig -- America's Greatest Highway Robbery

The Big Dig -- America's Greatest Highway Robbery began as a straight report of the shenanigans, deals, hustles, boondoggles and cons of the $22 billion dollar highway tunnel construction project through Boston.
But the author, Robert Skole, found that the Big Dig is so convoluted and confounded that nobody would believe it. The story could best be treated as a novel. Only imagination could do it justice.

The story started out as a comedy, but it turned tragic on July 10, 2006, when a woman was killed by a three-ton concrete ceiling panel that fell on her car. Nobody knows what further tragedies are waiting. The tunnels are so poorly designed, and with such hopeless signage and with  speed limits extremely high,  there are accidents almost daily. Luckily, none have resulted in deaths.

The Big Dig fiasco has been running for over 20 years -- and at the rate it's going will take another 20 years to unravel. Big Dig boosters claim it's America's largest-ever highway project, the Taj Mahal of tunnel systems. If so, it was designed by the Marx Brothers, built by the Three Stooges and managed by Willy Sutton.
The Big Dig cost almost three times that of building the Panama Canal, in current dollars! And Massachusetts taxpayers will be paying for it for decades to come. Some of the funding was from Federal sources, so thank you, Mr. and Mrs. America, for chipping in to build a problem-plagued tunnel system.
Oh, sure, the Big Dig honchos, and the media, always give the cost at $15 billion. But if you believe that figure, well, I got the Ted Williams Tunnel to sell you. You see, they conveniently forget to add in the interest costs of the huge loans Massachusetts took to pay for the thing. That interest is estimated at costing at least $7 billion, bringing the total to $22 billion.
The Big Dig involved building vehicular tunnels beneath the John Fitzgerald Expressway that slashed through the heart of Boston; the new Ted Williams tunnel under Boston Harbor out to Logan International Airport; and the ugliest, clumsiest stayed cable bridge ever built, a bridge that easily-conned Bostonians actually believe is a work of art.

The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, owners of the project, relied completely on two giant construction and engineering firms, Bechtel and Parsons-Brinckerhoff, which formed a consortium to design, engineer and manage the entire project.  Oh, yeah, it was on a cost-plus basis. The more the job cost, the more the consortium earned. Nice work if you can get it -- a guaranteed profit contract, worth a couple billion bucks, at least. 


The main tunnel through the city has been named after the late Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, Massachusetts Congressman and Speaker of the House from 1977-87, who was instrumental in getting federal funding for the Big Dig. An honest, highly-respected politician, he'd undoubtedly be turning over in his grave if he knew how the project became a rip-off of historic proportions.

Because the tunnels are so poorly designed, with hopeless signage, and with  speed limits never enforced,  there are accidents almost daily. Luckily, none have been fatal -- except the one at the Ted Williams Tunnel. That one was caused by negligent design, poor workmanship and faulty components. After the deadly accident, state politicians woke up, figured someone should be blamed, and the two design/management firms, plus some component suppliers,  paid  a few hundred million bucks for doing lousy work
The final piece of the project was tearing down the John Fitzgerald Expressway (named for a mayor of Boston, the maternal granddad of the Kennedy politicians). The elevated highway, known as the Central Artery, never should have been built in the first place, but genius city planners, mastermind transportation experts, thick-headed politicians and delighted contractors built it in worship of the automobile in the 1950s. In actuality, it was a monument to mass stupidity. As Europe was rebuilding cities destroyed in the war, highway fanatics -- backed by jubilant federal, state and city politicians and business leaders --  were joyfully demolishing historic buildings and neighborhoods in Boston, to create a ghastly "thruway" that was obsolete before it opened.

The Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway (named for the Kennedy mom, surprise, surprise) was built on the surface above the tunnels, where the Central Artery blotted the cityscape for half a century. The Greenway, originally intended as a public park, is run by a so-called Conservancy, which is a non-profit (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) corporation financed by the state and public donations. The Conservancy's initial main efforts seem be to turn the Greenway into a money-making venue for private and corporate events, entertainment, promotions, shows,  honky-tonk, and anything else to make money. After all, the handful of top executives of the Greenway have to get their huge salaries.

Playing cheerleaders to the Big Dig were tame Boston journalists, who naively, uncritically and respectfully echoed the publicity fed them by the Big Dig honchos and flacks. For years, the media, in "objective" news stories, referred to the Big Dig as  "an engineering marvel." Never was heard a discouraging word.  Never did the media ask embarrassing questions. Heck, they never seemed to ask anything. Never were designs or engineering or construction critically questioned. It took leaking tunnels and falling ceilings to wake up the sleeping reporters -- right, sleeping soundly in bed with the Big Dig.. They remain hoodwinked by the  "experts".

One outstanding example was the use of old fashioned mammoth centrifugal fans for the ventilation system instead of far more economical axial fans that are used in tunnels worldwide. To tunnel ventilation experts, the Big Dig's choice of ancient technology can only be explained by the fact that it's extremely expensive.

One vent building, at Haymarket Square, was designed as part of a huge structure housing a parking garage, five floors of offices and a large ground floor space. No journalist dug into why the Big Dig spent many millions to build the block-square structure, and then leave its office and retail space empty for ten years. Especially when the ground floor could have been be used for a supermarket that the adjacent North End and West End neighborhoods have long been clamoring for. In 2009, the Turnpike Authority finally asked for proposals for leasing the building.

Of course, it's a bit embarrassing for the media to ask questions now, after a decade of calling the Big Dig "an engineering marvel" and not noticing this massive vent building white elephant almost directly across the street from City Hall. Nor did the media ever follow up to see what happened as a result of a scathing report in 2001 by the state Inspector General detailing Big Dig cost overruns, design and constructions faults, shoddy workmanship and cover-ups.
The cast of characters -- fictional and real --  in this new novel include magnificent local and national politicians, construction managers, contractors, consultants, engineers, designers, architects, flacks, hacks, quacks, so-called journalists,  phonies, finaglers, happy bankrupts and billionaire builders laughing all the way to their Cayman Islands bank accounts.
Watch for the novel: The Big Dig -- America's Greatest Highway Robbery

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Robert Skole