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Drivers cruise through history

The elevated Central Artery, heralded in 1959 as a "highway in the sky" to move people and goods in and out of an economically struggling Boston, was used for the last time yesterday morning, replaced by an even more ambitious and controversial public works project.


The new Interstate 93 south tunnel opened to traffic shortly after 8:30 a.m. yesterday, after Massachusetts Turnpike Authority chairman Matthew J. Amorello and Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston presented commemorative Big Dig hats to the first driver in line to pass through the new tunnel, Elaine Cronin of the West End.

Traffic then started flowing over the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge and into the tunnel as concrete dust swirled in the winter sunlight, and hundreds of drivers negotiated the subterranean network for the first time. Less than an hour later, the steady flow of cars, buses, and trucks was joined by traffic from the Tobin Bridge, then from Storrow Drive, and from a new onramp at New Chardon Street.

The two new exits in the mile-long southbound tunnel -- one for the Callahan Tunnel and Government Center; the other for South Station -- started accepting traffic immediately.

The big test is tomorrow's commute, but Big Dig engineers were clearly elated that weekend traffic was moving briskly.

"Good job, boys!" said one man in a sports utility vehicle as he passed Big Dig engineer Keith Sibley and another worker near the Zakim bridge. "Enjoy!" said Sibley. "It's all yours!"

At an opening ceremony, Amorello said the southbound tunnel opening was "a Christmas present to the City of Boston" and cut a red, white, and blue ribbon. Menino said he was moved by the historic day,

"How often do you get to see a landmark being constructed?" he said. "It's so much easier to get into Boston. The face of the city is changing, and it's easier to get around."

The project is far from finished, however. The Dewey Square Tunnel still must be overhauled, requiring another year of work; the old Artery needs to be dismantled, a job targeted for completion in time for the Democratic National Convention in July; and several key lanes and interchanges must be added or improved. Overall completion of the $14.6 billion Big Dig is scheduled for May 2005.

The end of an era was marked yesterday morning, however, as workers and heavy equipment started descending immediately on the elevated Central Artery, preparing for its erasure from the landscape. The elevated Artery, with its two-dozen exit and entrance ramps, was overburdened almost from the day it opened. It was hopelessly clogged for several hours a day after two highway projects that were supposed to accompany the Central Artery -- the Inner Belt and the Southwest Expressway -- were scrapped in 1970.

In the years since, building elevated highways through cities and along waterfronts came to be viewed as a colossal urban planning mistake, and the green-colored hulking structure came to be detested as both an eyesore and a traffic nightmare.

"It divided our city," said Menino. "It was the second green monster."

Anne and Nick Najjar were the last to drive over the double-decked elevated southbound I-93 highway, scene of a major bottleneck every weekday morning, and onto the old Central Artery.

"It's exciting. It's been a long time," she said, as a throng of TV cameras focused on her. She said she was going to Boston to get her hair done.

With a short statement that crackled over two-way radios at 8:24, the Artery was declared officially closed as an interstate highway, although traffic continued to flow onto it from Storrow Drive until late morning.

Cronin, the first driver to use the southbound Zakim bridge and the new tunnel, remarked, "It's wonderful. It's part of history."

"Obey the speed limit, good to see you're buckled up, read the signs, and congratulations," Amorello told her as the cameras whirred. She was off shortly after 8:30 a.m., preceded by State Police and followed by two lanes of traffic that had been stopped on the lower deck in the area of the Schrafts building in Charlestown.

"I was wondering what would happen first -- the Red Sox World Series or the completion of the tunnel," said Fred Clough of Winchester, traveling behind Cronin with his 12-year-old son, Kevin, in an Audi convertible with the top down. "Now that one happened, the other can also happen."

At Faneuil Hall Marketplace, where merchants were worried that the new roadway would be too daunting for shoppers, the stillness on the empty elevated Artery caught the attention of Joanne and Robert Peterson, who drove from Londonderry, N.H., through the new tunnel and parked near Quincy Market.

"It's so quiet," said Joanne Peterson. "My God, where's all the traffic?"

Driving through the tunnel was quick and easy, she said. "We were expecting bumper-to-bumper traffic like always, but there was hardly any."

But Kristina Brewer, owner of the clothing shop Kristina's in the North Market Building at Faneuil Hall Marketplace, looked around her empty store and said people had been scared off by the confusion created by the tunnel opening.

"When people don't know what to do, they just stay away," Brewer said. "This is the Saturday before Christmas. You'd expect more."

The southbound side of the Big Dig was the last major milestone for the project, which has soared in cost since the 1980s from $2.8 billion to nearly $15 billion today, and is several years behind schedule. The extension of the Massachusetts Turnpike under Fort Point Channel to the Ted Williams Tunnel opened in January, followed by the northbound I-93 tunnel opening in March.

Globe correspondents Ron DePasquale and Nikoletta Banushi contributed to this report. Anthony Flint can be reached at

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