It would be wrong to conclude from the Big Dig that other states should not bother with ambitious infrastructure. While the Big Dig's real worth will be measured in decades, it already shows its value only three years after workers dismantled the Central Artery. Consistent with pre-construction estimates, travel time through downtown at afternoon rush hour is down from nearly 20 minutes to less than three.
Elsewhere on the underground highways, travel times are between one-quarter and two-thirds shorter; average speeds in some sections have shot from ten miles per hour to 43. Airport trips are between one-half and three-quarters shorter. A 62 percent drop in hours spent on the new roads saves nearly $200 million annually in time and fuel. Indeed, speed is the tunnels' biggest safety problem, rather than drivers' veering toward too many exits in slow traffic.
For the first time in generations, downtown Boston viewed from above is unchoked by traffic. Cars zoom beneath the ground and reappear, emerging to leave the city over the Zakim Bridge. Downtown's biggest challenge is making sure that the still-unfinished "greenway" parks weave Boston, its waterfront, and its neighborhoods together again, where the Artery used to be.
Investors and residents are responding positively to the infrastructure improvement. As the Boston Globe reported in 2004, commercial properties along the old Artery increased in value by 79 percent in 15 years, nearly double the citywide increase of 41 percent. Owners have reconfigured buildings to open views where they once bricked up windows, and they are renovating property in other newly accessible parts of Boston.
The North End's Italian restaurants are putting sidewalk cafés where they once hid from the Artery. The North End won't be the North End of 1950, though, just because the Artery is gone. "The Artery preserved us," says Fredda Hollander, a longtime resident. Tourists and well-heeled potential residents once put off by the physical and psychological barrier now happily wander over from other parts of the city, pushing up both commercial and residential prices.
By taking so long, Massachusetts has proven that infrastructure investments are for future generations. To longtime Bostonians, the new parkland may always be a marker of a phantom Artery, and the Big Dig may always be a scandal. But Boston is welcoming residents and visitors who know nothing about the Artery or the saga surrounding its successor. The state's and city's job is to make sure that the Big Dig runs smoothly in the future so that their new constituents don't have to learn about it.