The Original Concept
The reasons for the Big Dig date back nearly 80 years. In 1930, a city planning board noted that Boston's "street system should be adapted to the requirements of the motor age" and proposed an elevated expressway. The Central Artery's first planners acknowledged that "the erection of ... elevated structures ... in downtown Boston" would hurt some residents' quality of life. But a "vehicular subway" - the first mention of the idea that, half a century later, would become the Big Dig - "would interfere with sewers and with ... rapid transit subways." The state and city had the luxury of deciding to build an elevated highway because bottom-up, Jane Jacobs-inspired urban coalitions didn't exist yet to thwart the era's top-down, Robert Moses-style urban planners.
The Great Depression and the Second World War temporarily interfered with the idea. By the late 1940s, Boston still didn't have its highway, despite two decades of planning - and despite the increasing need for fast access to the city, which was hemorrhaging jobs to the suburbs. But in 1949, six years before Congress and President Eisenhower funded the Interstate Highway System, Massachusetts started building the hideous green steel Central Artery that would scar Boston, physically and psychologically, for the rest of the century. "Boston was a pioneer, but this was bad pioneering," says Rick Dimino, former city transportation commissioner and today president of the business group A Better City.
It is easy to follow officials' reasoning for building the Artery along Boston's waterfront. After all, that's where Boston's business district, once centered on shipping, was located. But the Artery vivisected Boston. It barred pedestrians from the water. It overwhelmed low-rise streets, a historic outdoor fruit and vegetable market, and even the historic Faneuil Hall with traffic, noise, and shadow. It erased swaths of the working-class Italian North End, displacing 573 businesses - mostly small shops and trading firms - and hundreds of families. Owners of some buildings that escaped the bulldozers bricked over windows that faced the Artery. Boston understood the Artery's impact so quickly that in 1954 it changed tack and buried a last stretch in a tunnel.
Though it did enable suburban workers to get to new office jobs, the Artery quickly became obsolete. Its intended daily capacity was 70,000 cars, but it soon groaned under 170,000. Poorly designed and constructed, it had structural problems and an accident rate four times the national average. That's because drivers veering toward the Artery's abundance of downtown exits collided with drivers continuing to the increasingly busy Logan Airport. The building of the Artery turned Bostonians so vehemently against highways that the state halted their construction in the early seventies, killing a planned inner belt that, after displacing another 4,000 families, would have carried traffic from the downtown Artery to other parts of the city. But because the belt and the Artery had been conceived as an integrated system, Artery traffic had nowhere to go. Little more than a decade after the Artery opened, Massachusetts and Boston started scheming to junk it.