A paper first published in The Manhattan Institute's City Journal, Autumn 2007 © The Manhattan Institute. Reprinted with permission.
Published here March 2008.

Introduction | The Original Concept | A New Approach: Mitigation | A Clever Political Strategy
Successful Innovative Technology | Cost and Questionable Accounting | Misplaced Responsibility
Allocation of Project Risk and Responsibility | Political Power, a Warning | Conclusion

A New Approach: Mitigation

When Governor Michael Dukakis's administration started thinking about fixing this mess in the seventies and early eighties, it had learned the lessons of the Artery's construction well. But how to fix the Artery, and heal the downtown neighborhoods that it sliced through, without uprooting more residents and slapping a "closed for construction" sign on Boston? How to ease traffic by building an airport tunnel that, unlike the two existing tunnels, would bypass downtown, when the politically powerful neighborhood near the airport opposed new traffic and the seizing of homes?

If Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs had a child, it might have been Fred Salvucci, Dukakis's transportation secretary, who concocted the Big Dig project. Armed with two MIT engineering degrees, Salvucci had fought the inner belt from city hall before joining Dukakis; he even had firsthand experience of how highway construction affects cities, having seen the state seize and raze his elderly grandmother's house to make way for a road. Salvucci remembers persuading Dukakis to support the Big Dig by making two crucial pledges: "It would enhance the urban environment rather than degrade it, and there would be no taking of housing." The state then won the public over by mollifying anyone, anywhere, who had anything at all to do with the project. "We learned from Westway," says Salvucci, referring to New York's plan to depress its West Side Highway. That project failed because the city didn't garner various interest groups' support before seeking congressional approval.

Massachusetts's task was partly northeastern politics as usual. Unions knew that they would benefit from a "project labor agreement," through which their workers would agree not to strike if contractors, even nonunion ones, would hire through union halls. Police officers would get tens of millions of dollars annually in overtime, since local law mandates that a policeman watch over any work site. Minority-group reps were pleased with a pledge to hire blacks and women for construction jobs.

But the state had a new task, one that would become a feature of big infrastructure projects nationwide: "mitigation." Broadly speaking, mitigation was the state's promise to alleviate the Big Dig's impact on Boston, from interrupting business to harming the environment. Mitigation eventually accounted for about one-third of the Big Dig's cost. That included the thousands of dollars needed to outfit North End apartments with air conditioning, soundproof windows, and firm mattresses as residents settled in for a decade of construction. It also included the more than $1 billion needed to rework a planned bridge that business leaders, residents, and the nearby city of Cambridge considered ugly.

Mitigation made downtown businesses happy, promising not to shut down any of the Central Artery's six lanes during construction. It also promised that companies such as Fidelity Investments would not lack electricity or telephones for even a few hours as contractors dug up miles of utilities to make room for underground highways. Mitigation made Gillette, Boston's biggest manufacturer, happy, working with the company to marry its complicated underwater infrastructure to the Big Dig's. Mitigation made the post office happy, building temporary roads to a distribution station. Mitigation made airport neighbors happy, vowing that cars from the airport tunnel wouldn't exit onto residential land. Mitigation also made environmentalists happy with its promise to preserve as open space three-quarters of the land that the Artery's demolition would create (the highway tunnels that would run underneath couldn't support heavy construction, anyway).

It even made more ambitious environmentalists happy. It promised to improve mass transit and to use some of the excavated dirt - which, because it had saltwater in it, couldn't be dumped inland - to transform a Boston Harbor island from a noxious landfill into a beachfront park. It made archaeologists happy, paying to catalog artifacts dating back to colonial days. It didn't make rats happy: after near-hysteria that construction would unleash vermin whose underground lairs also dated to colonial days, the project launched an aggressive rodent-control program.

The mitigation, some of which was sensible, tempered even reasonable criticism of the Big Dig. Few locals voiced skepticism during planning. Once you got your own interest protected, you kept quiet, to make sure that the project, free of local opposition, would win federal funding. Thanks largely to mitigation efforts, more than 80 percent of Boston residents and nearly two-thirds of state residents supported the Big Dig in its early years.

The Original Concept  The Original Concept

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