The Nation's Pulse

Public Works Blues

The effects of the Big Dig tragedy in Boston will be felt beyond Mitt Romney's 2008 candidacy.

By 8.14.06

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BOSTON -- In his 2000 guidebook Boston A to Z, Thomas O'Connor offered a dour assessment of the city's project to ease traffic by routing major thoroughfares underground and underwater commonly known as the Big Dig, writing, "old roadways are closed, new access roads are built, road signs are changed, drivers are confused, traffic jams are endemic, delays are routine -- but authorities assert that when the Big Dig is finally completed the results will make it all worthwhile."

Though the Big Dig officially wrapped up in 2003, the day when the "results" would all be "worthwhile" has seemed light years away since the evening of July 10 when the life of 38-year-old newlywed immigrant Milena Del Valle was snuffed out in front of her horrified husband as twelve tons of concrete crashed down on their Honda sedan from the ceiling of the I-90 Connector tunnel. In the past, notoriously jaded Bostonians tended to make bitter light of the failings of the Big Dig. The most shocking aspect of the reaction to the tragedy in Boston was the lack of shock. The general mood throughout the city since Del Valle's death, however, has more closely mirrored a 1985 song by British troubadour Morrissey, "that joke isn't funny anymore, it's too close to home and it's too near the bone."

As I have expounded upon elsewhere at length, in denying Gov. Mitt Romney's repeated attempts to gain some semblance of supervision over the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority (MTA), the independent agency running the Big Dig, Massachusetts Democrats -- with an 87 percent majority in the state legislature -- essentially knitted Romney a radiation suit for use during what populist-Left economist Max Sawicky deemed "Massachusetts Democrats' mini-Chernobyl." Having spent the last three years damning the fiscal and safety policies of Big Dig administrators, Romney now has Lexis-Nexis on his side. Unless the Governor drops the ball, those who have opposed his attempts at reform will reap the whirlwind.

Still, the Big Dig disaster is bound to have implications beyond the realm of 2008 politics, where pundits treat Del Valle's life as if its primary value was how it would strengthen or weaken Romney's bid for the presidency.

Touted as the largest public works project in the nation's history, the Big Dig, according to former MTA chairman Matthew Amorello, rivaled "anything in the history of the world built by men." That it is such a mess financially (a $2.5 billion project authorized over Reagan's veto in 1987 that ballooned to nearly $15 billion) and structurally (large and small leaks throughout, falling debris, a collapsed slurry wall and, now, murderous falling ceiling panels) does not bode for public works enthusiasts' aspirations.

"You start from the point where the Big Dig project has cost exponentially more than anybody was ever told it was going to, which in and of itself shakes public confidence and promotes criticism," Massachusetts House Minority Leader Brad Jones told me. "Then when you see what you got for what you paid -- the leaks and the bolts and the associated failure issues -- that only compounds the lack of public confidence, not only in this project, but the next time public officials anywhere come back for another project of any magnitude."

As if on cue, within days of my conversation with Jones, Harry Reid invoked the now deadly Big Dig specter to argue against the nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain. "It's the same kind of thing, a big hole, the same kind of deal," Reid argued. An editorial in the Boston Phoenix called for a federal investigation, thundering "we were all canaries sent into a $14.6 billion coal mine." Andrew Cline has suggested naming a tunnel after Del Valle as "a reminder of how much we risk when we take the government's word on faith."

If earmarks weren't consistently used in such a dishonest way at the federal level, the ghost of the Big Dig might prove problematic for legislators seeking support for similar projects. Unfortunately, there is little accountability at the federal dollar spigot. Constituencies that would never countenance wasteful pie-in-the-sky plans if the brunt of the costs would have to be carried locally have few qualms about accepting federal largesse for identical plans. Indeed, it seems boosters of the Big Dig specifically sold the project as a money maker for the city.

"The hope for thousands of construction and related jobs in the 1990s is a vital element in the coalition supporting the project and shows that Bostonians are once again turning to their government to secure economic goals for the community," Lawrence Kennedy wrote in his 1992 book Planning the City Upon a Hill.

Nevertheless, what political figure with long-term ambitions outside the Bay State is going to take similar gamble on a monster public works project -- financial windfall or no -- with an example like this? Romney is looking good right now seizing control of an out of control mess, but it is a moment in time not easily re-created. Politicians seeking to divine a lesson from nearly twenty years of Big Dig history must realize that at a statistical level they are more likely to end up caught in a mess than playing hero in the aftermath. Likewise, few politicians have Romney's supremely cool head or a proven methodical approach to problem solving.

"It is a delicate balancing act, because it's difficult to come out and say, 'You should have no confidence at all,' create a panic when you want to be calming and reassuring," Jones agreed. "I think the Governor, both by past experience and temperament and personality, is someone who has the ability to do that."

None of this takes away from the simple fact that the failures of the Big Dig have been painful to friend and foe alike in Massachusetts.

"It has been very dispiriting," Jones said. "On paper [the Big Dig] is obviously a tremendous feat of engineering. Now I'm left like a lot of people sort of scratching my head saying, 'We built the pyramids and they've last for such a long time, but with modern tools and technology we can't build a tunnel that'll be hold up and be safe?"

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