A Clever Political Strategy
Mitigation notwithstanding, the Big Dig would probably still be a near-forgotten dream like Westway if not for Massachusetts's Washington dominance in the late seventies and eighties. Democrats ran Capitol Hill, and Massachusetts's wholly Democratic congressional delegation had a lot of seniority. Everyone in Massachusetts thus assumed that they would fund the project with "ten-cent dollars," of which the feds would pay the other 90.
Even so, Massachusetts got its initial federal funding only because of Salvucci's and Dukakis's brilliant and successful argument. Their argument: since Massachusetts had built its Artery before the Interstate Highway System paid for such projects, the state should be able to use the federal money that it hadn't spent back then to rebuild the Artery. This fluke explains why Massachusetts focused on nuts and bolts, at a time when other northeastern states were ignoring infrastructure in favor of expanding social programs like Medicaid.
It knew that if it did so, it could tap into "free" federal money. Legendary Massachusetts Democrat Tip O'Neill, the House's majority leader and soon to be its Speaker, took this argument to Washington. In 1976 he inserted "placeholder" funds for the Big Dig into a congressional blueprint of costs to complete the Interstate Highway System.
A decade later, though, President Reagan didn't care to give Massachusetts Democrats billions for what skeptics considered a "highway beautification project." When Reagan vetoed a 1987 highway bill that contained the Big Dig's first significant federal funding, the real politics started. Tip, and Ted Kennedy in the Senate, garnered enough supporters, including 13 Republicans, for an override. In a preview of how Washington would work over the next two decades, they approved goodies that other states wanted, too. Wavering out-of-state politicians came on board.
After Tip's override, local Big Dig planners never worried about pesky things like whether cost estimates and project scope were reasonable. Massachusetts had proved that it was more powerful than the president; surely there would always be more money where its initial funding came from. But over the ensuing decades, the Big Dig's price tag waxed and Massachusetts's congressional power waned. Washington imposed a firm dollar cap on its Big Dig spending at the turn of the millennium, leaving Massachusetts to pay the rest. State taxpayers would eventually foot nearly half the project's cost.
The Bay State's experience is a lesson for state officials: the clout you have today may be gone tomorrow. If you think that an ambitious project's benefits exceed its costs, convince your taxpayers up front - rather than getting Washington, which may change its mind down the road, to get its taxpayers to pay.