Tom Keane

Don’t blame Baker for Big Dig

By Tom Keane
October 25, 2010

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FOR MANY of those involved in the Big Dig, the entrance to the Tip O’Neill Tunnel could well be labeled, “Here lie monsters.’’ Charlie Baker, now getting lambasted for having put together financing to support the project, is hearing their snarls.

The critiques are unpersuasive. What else should Baker have done? Refused to find the money? Killed the project altogether? Many today might say yes, but that was hardly an option at the time. The Big Dig was a Democratic (not Republican) initiative, it was already under construction by the time Baker arrived at the scene, and, for all the angst the project continues to engender, it was the right thing to do.

Not that I have much sympathy for Baker’s handling of the issue now. From the moment he thought of running, he should have known the Big Dig would come up. But his answers were confused and often misleading (“I was one of about 50 people’’). His role was not inconsequential, although the project was hardly his brainchild.

It was, actually, conceived of under Democratic Governor Michael Dukakis, and it was a Democratic Congress that funded the project in 1987 over the vehement opposition of President Ronald Reagan, who worried about its cost (hmm. . .sometimes those Republicans are right after all). In 1991, the project broke ground.

Baker got involved three years later, in the fall of 1994, when Gov. William Weld appointed him head of Administration and Finance. Baker claims that when he arrived the cost of the project was $11 billion and when he left in September 1998 it was still $11 billion. I’m not sure where that exact number comes from, but newspaper accounts generally support him. The project was originally projected in 1985 to be $2.5 billion, but costs had escalated as new pieces (such as the Zakim Bridge) were added. By September 1994, a Globe article at the time points out, the base cost was $7.7 billion but this figure confusingly excluded inflation. Adding in inflation and possible delays, the estimate was somewhere between $10 billion to $12 billion. (The confusion about inflation led to seemingly different cost estimates in bond offerings, as well.) Four years later in September 1998, the Globe was still reporting roughly the same figure: “$10.8 billion, inflation included.’’

Nevertheless, Baker wasn’t running the project. We had long passed the point of deciding whether it should be built, and were at the stage of figuring out — in the face of declining federal support — how to pay for it. And that was his job. The way he did so was to use a financial device called grant anticipation notes which shifted costs to the future. Much as individuals use mortgages to buy a house, that’s a sensible strategy for any large capital project.

Of course, this was the most expensive capital project of all time. Like it or not, someone eventually would have to pay, which has meant tolls have gone up and funds for other state-wide transportation projects have been scarce. To fault Baker for that, though, is disingenuous; the real blame lies with those who promoted the Big Dig in the first place.

Or, rather than blame, should that be credit? The fear back in the 1980s had been that without something like the Big Dig, the region would be economically strangled to death. With the project now built, that hasn’t happened — the city is vibrant, the state’s economy is strong, and there’s no two-hour wait to exit Logan Airport. As costly as they were, we’re much better off with the new tunnels.

But the lesson politicians draw from the Big Dig is regrettably different. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has just killed the Hudson River commuter rail tunnel, an $8.7 billion connection between his state and New York City, and it’s easy to see echoes of the Big Dig in that decision. Megaprojects are by their nature bold and audacious. Their complexity is such that, inevitably, something is bound to go wrong and, as the Big Dig has taught, we’re more than willing to condemn any involved. The politically smart and safe thing to do, then, is avoid that risk. If it never gets built, then no one will ever get criticized. But in fact, do we really want leaders who fear to dream?

Tom Keane, a guest columnist, writes regularly for the Globe Magazine. He can be reached at