The Big Dig is nearly finished, its last ramps in place, its exit signs permanently bolted inside the tunnels. After years of traffic turmoil caused by incessant change, the project's completion raises an interesting question: How easy is it to navigate? To find out, we approached three teams of drivers from out of town, people who had never driven the Big Dig before. Their task: To drive around and discover how easy or hard it is now, $14.6 billion later, to get lost in Boston.
Is the drive from South Station to the TD Banknorth Garden so easy that a couple of clowns could do it? If the mishap-filled ride of Gautham Prasad and Steve Copeland is any indication, the answer is no.
Prasad, of Cincinnati, and Copeland, of Walterboro, N.C., are clowns from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. They need to drive from a promotional event at South Station back to the Garden for a rehearsal at 4 p.m. Their task is to try to use the Big Dig's northbound tunnel as their route back. They fail.
At 3:20 p.m., Prasad, 28, and Copeland, 21, both dressed in full clown gear, are given the keys to a Honda Accord LX that is low on gas. Being clowns, they begin by driving around the Federal Reserve Bank, more enthused by the inflatable Clifford the Big Red Dog atop the Children's Museum than by their task.
''Steve, how do you get underground?" Prasad finally asks as he works the clutch in his oversized pink clown shoes.
''Well, you can use a shovel," Copeland chuckles.
They stop to ask directions. Of about a dozen people passing, everyone smiles, but no one answers.
The clowns make their way onto Atlantic Avenue, which is crawling with traffic. They miss the onramp to the Interstate 93 north tunnel and decide to ask a backhoe driver for directions. ''I don't know," the driver says. ''I have to drive all the way back to Malden."
They swerve dangerously in front of the Boston Harbor Hotel. The doorman, unimpressed by their getups, sends off the clowns. They drive on, turning onto India Street, not because it's the right way to go, but because Prasad was born in India and wanted to see what was there.
On State Street, they finally get their bearings. They turn right onto Congress Street and are almost there. Down Congress to Merrimac Street, they are passed by a dirty white school bus that they recognize as the shuttle that takes circus workers to performances.
''Follow them," Copeland says. ''They know what they're doing."
But the bus is not going to the Garden. As Prasad and Copeland reach Leverett Circle, Storrow Drive outbound, and the Charles Circle exit, they gradually become sad clowns. And maybe a little angry clowns.
Down Cambridge Street to Staniford, they make a U-turn and go back down the length of Cambridge Street and over the Longfellow Bridge into Cambridge, thinking they are headed into downtown Boston. It is now 20 minutes before rehearsal.
''I am not happy right now," Prasad mutters.
''Don't mess up," snaps Copeland, who has to go to the bathroom. ''What is wrong with this city?"
On Broadway, they ask the driver of a silver
The directions would have been flawless. But Binney Street, just a few feet away and unmarked, becomes Galileo Galilei Way at the crucial intersection.
''Go up another one," says Copeland. And the clowns keep going straight, into the heart of Kendall Square.
After turning onto Portland Street, they head back over the Longfellow Bridge and back into a mess at Charles Circle, where a homeless man gives them the best directions they have heard during their drive.
''We've gotten like five different set of directions, all of which disagree with each other," Copeland says. ''But I trust that guy. The sign said, 'Clean and sober.' "
Up to Staniford, they take a left and head straight. They plot to tell their boss that Copeland ate the directions. ''I'm surprised so few people here know where things are," he said.
Pulling into the parking lot at 4:10 p.m., 50 minutes after they had begun their trip, the clowns are happy again.
''I can't believe we got so lost," Prasad says.
''I can," Copeland says.