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With history of firsts, duo gunning to be last

There was an unmistakable air of sadness in Stefan Economou's Somerville dining room as he and Ravi Jain contemplated their last Big Dig hurrah.


Boston's self-titled "Transportation Pioneers" have achieved a measure of fame -- particularly among the nerdiest of the enthusiasts who follow the drama of the Big Dig the way others follow soap operas. They were the first to cross the Leverett Circle Connector and the first to exit the northbound Liberty Tunnel. They mounted a motorcycle and wormed their way into being the first to cross the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge.

With the southbound tunnel opening today, they're looking for a "last." They want to be the last to drive over the decaying elevated artery. Dubbing the stunt "Final Flight," a play on the centennial of the Wright brothers' first flight, the duo planned to don pilot's hats and goggles and, in a Cutlass station wagon, begin a long, slow loop of Somerville roads at dawn, hoping to maneuver into position to be the last car allowed onto the artery before it closes forever. "It's so strange to us how nobody else is excited about these milestones," Economou said. "You'd think people would be lined up for these events, but they're not. I suspect Big Dig fatigue."

Some poke fun at them. But they take their role in history seriously.

"It's not a joke; there's a legitimacy to all this," Jain said. "This whole project is coming to a close, and we have had this prior relationship with this project, so it's kind of our way of saying goodbye. It's a little sad."

They planned to affix a large sign to the back of their car reading, "So long, big sky."

A few weeks ago, the pair, a website content manager and a graphic designer, met in Economou's home, cracked open some beers, reminisced about their Big Dig firsts, and plotted their last. It hasn't always been an easy road.

There was the photo finish on the Zakim Bridge in the spring, when troopers picked a driver from New Hampshire to drive through the northbound Interstate 93 tunnel first.

"We just pulled up next to him and gunned it when we got to the end of the tunnel," Jain recalled. The duo still claims first place, even though the New Hampshire driver was pulled over and given the congratulatory hat and handshake.

Then there was the opening of the Interstate 90 extension to the Ted Williams Tunnel in January, when they circled for almost four hours and feared that their Audi might run out of gas before a state trooper finally allowed them to pull over right near the mouth of the tunnel and wait for the opening.

"We never really know how these things are going to turn out," Economou said. "It's pretty tricky."

The duo's pioneering quests began in 1999, when Jain, a graduate student at Massachusetts College of Art, and Economou, an undergraduate buddy from 10 years prior, began dressing up in the spirit of famous pioneers and forging transportation firsts, "just for the fun of it," as Jain put it. Their first feat together was traveling the Leverett Circle connector as a modern-day version of Lewis and Clark.

Jain, a 32-year-old Jamaica Plain resident, calls Economou the "linchpin" who holds everything together, while Economou, 33, calls Jain the "organizer and instigator."

The pair have raised a few eyebrows over the years. Jain's girlfriend thought he was insane when they met in 2000.

"We were riding the 39 bus together from MassArt to Jamaica Plain, and I asked him, `So, what do you do?' " Sonia Targontsidis recalled. "He said, `I'm a transportation pioneer,' and I thought, `Oh, I hope this guy doesn't follow me home.' "

Of course, she came around. "Once you get to know Ravi and Stephan, you realize they really love this," Targontsidis said. "It's inside them, it's this very sort of optimistic attitude that's very rare. Although I'm sure a lot of people might think it's cheesy."

Jain said his roommate has often tired of the media attention, and has lost his temper more than once with the duo.

"Whenever the news reporters and the cameras are there, he says, `OK, can you stop this now?' " Jain recalled.

But the result is worth it, the pair said, the sheer joy of celebrating milestones in society's infrastructure development.

The pioneers were not anticipating much competition for this morning's "last."

Their biggest challenge, Jain said, will be looping at precisely the right place and time before the traffic switch at the southbound entrance to the Zakim Bridge.

And making sure their car doesn't run out of gas.

Donovan Slack can be reached at

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