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The story of 'The Big Dig' infrastructure project

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

If you have ever wondered why it is so difficult to build infrastructure in this country, why these projects take so much time and cost so much money, there's now a podcast that can offer some clues. It is called The Big Dig. It comes from GBH News in, yes, Boston. And it tells the story of a project that became infamous around the world for a price tag that just went up and up and up.

JIM KERASIOTES: I will be brutally honest with you. I made up a number. I just said, I'll give you an extra billion dollars and don't come back. We're done.

DETROW: That's Jim Kerasiotes. He was one of the project's many leaders.

KERASIOTES: Everybody salutes - oh, thank you, thank you. Everything's - you know, this is wonderful. This is good news. I made the f***ing number up. And to this day, I scratch my head, and I say to myself, this is how we run the government?

DETROW: Ian Coss hosts The Big Dig, and he joins me now to talk about what we can learn today in this moment of infrastructure building from America's most expensive highway project. Hey, Ian.

IAN COSS, BYLINE: Hey there.

DETROW: So let's go back to the beginning before the Big Dig became this iconic, sprawling mess, right? Like, what was the original problem? And what was the original goal of this project?

COSS: Yeah. So it begins with a highway that runs through the center of Boston. And, you know, like a lot of big cities, Boston had built this elevated highway that really divided the city in half, and it was clogged with traffic. It was ugly. It was noisy. It wasn't working well. And so in 1983 - 40 years ago - Governor Michael Dukakis makes this big speech and announces that we're going to deal with this problem once and for all. We're going to take that highway and put it underground.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL DUKAKIS: No one who commutes to Boston needs to be told the central artery is a monumental problem. It is the cause of more individual headaches and more frazzled nerves than anything I can think of. It is dangerous. It is poorly designed. It is obsolete. It is ugly. It divides our capital city from its great and historic harbor and waterfront. So now is the time to fix the artery and fix it right.

COSS: So that's really where the story of the Big Dig begins, with this kind of moonshot, visionary idea to fix a terrible highway.

DETROW: OK. So at the starting point, this makes sense, right? This is a terrible highway. Everyone wants to see it fixed. But we are now talking at a point where it became, at a certain point, this code word, this kind of like prime example of cost overruns and projects that never get finished. Remind us how long it actually took to complete this project. Remind us how much off track it ended up going.

COSS: Yeah. So just to give you some basic numbers, the construction itself took 16 years, right? And the cost - and these numbers are really kind of mind-blowing - I mean, the original, the earliest estimates of the cost are in the $2-ish billion-dollar range. That grows and grows and grows for many reasons. And by the time it's done, the full budget of the project is almost $15 billion.

DETROW: Wow. Wow.

COSS: So that gives you a sense of how it got this reputation - for the cost that just kept going up.

DETROW: And what was the point when it went from great idea to what is going on here?

COSS: I would say that's why I wanted to do this series, was to trace that journey and make sense of that contradiction, right - between the idealism of where the project began and how troubled it ultimately became. Because, like you said, by the time this thing was in full swing, it really was the poster child of the big government boondoggle. I mean, there are congressional hearings about this when it's going on. John McCain, at one point, when he was running for president, made the Big Dig, like, one of his talking points.

And when you talk to the people who worked on the project, who were underground for years and years, this fact - I mean, it really haunts them, or it certainly haunted them at the time. There's a foreman I spoke to named Frank Martinez, who spent nine years working on one piece of this project. And he told me about how much it hurt to see the reputation of the project sink.

You felt like the public blamed...

FRANK MARTINEZ: The public was always finger point of anybody who worked on the Big Dig. I mean, we got to the point that we don't even want to wear the Big Dig shirts because people were always pointing at us - so these are the guys that are stealing the money. You know what I mean? And I was just a worker. We were just there doing the job, you know.

COSS: And so part of what I wanted to do with the series was to show how we got there, because it's complicated. And it's not as simple as, you know, there was just one corrupt politician or one single, greedy contractor who came in and ruined the whole thing. I mean, the challenges and obstacles that the Big Dig faced are really systemic challenges to the way we build infrastructure in this country. And it's about kind of wonky stuff like funding and permitting and contracting and management structure and things, like I said, that are systemic to all big projects. So if you're interested in building high-speed rail or building wind farms or tearing down highways or doing anything big and ambitious, the Big Dig really is a great case study for understanding how hard those projects are.

DETROW: And, of course, trillions of dollars are being spent by the federal government at this moment to do just that, though I think the Biden administration probably does not want to bring comparisons to the Big Dig at the moment. But you know, on the other hand, it got finished. It got built. The dig was completed.

There was this moment. I was driving to New Hampshire for primary coverage, and I was like, oh, my gosh, I think I'm driving on the Big Dig. Here it is. Like, I mean, has it paid off now that it is actually built? Now that it is actually running and has been for quite some time, do people in Massachusetts feel like this was ultimately worth it?

COSS: Yeah. It's complicated, and I think it depends on your point of view. There were many people I interviewed who told me that, I mean, just look at what we got. You know, it restored the heart of the city. It attracted businesses and jobs. I mean, the land around this project is some of the most valuable commercial real estate in the country. If you go to downtown Boston today, I mean, it's hard to imagine the city without this project having been done, you know, with that massive highway still running through it. So I think to a lot of people, it has totally proven itself.

On the other hand, did it erase traffic in Boston? No. I mean, it's still just a big investment in road and car infrastructure. I remember talking with one local comedian who told me that, really, the whole point of the Big Dig was just to confuse the traffic helicopters, you know, that the TV stations run. Because the traffic is still there, but now you just can't see it because it's underground.

DETROW: (Laughter) That's a funny point. I mean, it does seem like the Big Dig looms over American infrastructure. It gets invoked as this cautionary tale, as we've been saying. Do you think that narrative is fair in the end?

COSS: I think it's simplistic is, I guess, what I would say. And really, my big takeaway from studying this history is that the narrative does matter - that the way we talk about a project like this or the way we tell the story, really does change how we think about our capacity to build something like this again and also what the challenges for that building are. So I think it's really important to look at it closely and try and understand the narrative.

As I was finishing up the series, I got kind of a reminder of this when I took a walk through downtown Boston with Fred Salvucci, who, if you listen to the show, he's really, like, the originator, the architect of the project. And he told me this story while we were walking through the city - a story that he had heard once about the Italian mystic, Saint Francis, who, like Salvucci, got his start as a builder.

FRED SALVUCCI: God came to him in a dream and said, Francis, you have to build a church. So Francis woke up the next day and said, oh, instructions from the big guy. I have to build a church. So he began gathering stones, piling them up, digging a foundation.

COSS: Francis worked and worked, building the church all on his own. And when it was finally done, he laid down to rest. That night, there was a terrible thunderstorm. The church was struck by lightning and destroyed. But Francis, once again, saw God in his dream.

SALVUCCI: What is - what's this weird joke? I do what you tell me. I work in the hot sun. I build your church and you destroy it with an electric storm. Like, all these months of work, poof, it's all gone. And God says to Francis, no, no - the church that you have to build is not a church of stones. You have to build a church in the hearts and the minds of the people. That's the only church that matters and will last.

COSS: And that's one of the questions I really try to sit with in the series is not just what this project built in stone, but ultimately, what it built in our hearts and minds.

DETROW: That is Ian Coss. Ian, thank you so much for joining us.

COSS: Thank you.

DETROW: You can hear the whole story on the podcast The Big Dig from GBH News. You can find it on the NPR One app, gbhnews.org/thebigdig or wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ian Coss