Brian McGrory

Own the road

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / October 29, 2010

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I offer here what neither major gubernatorial candidate has the fortitude to put forth himself: A defense of the Big Dig.

Deval Patrick has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars kicking the stuffing out of his opponent for overseeing a financing plan that allowed for the completion of the Big Dig, the implied message being that the project was a boondoggle not worth the dirt that it sits under.

Charlie Baker has sulked from the accusations rather than stand his ground, even telling this reporter in March that he was “one of about 50 people’’ making the financing decisions, a statement that has haunted him throughout the campaign.

So much for courage and conviction. So much for taking pride in a massive community accomplishment, a feat of public works.

Yes, the project had its problems. It cost a couple of billion dollars more than we should have spent. The feds didn’t contribute anywhere near as much as we were led to believe they would. Not enough corruption got exposed, and one motorist too many died.

But even accepting all this, the project has been an overwhelming success by any sane measure, though maybe that’s the problem here: Nothing in the public realm seems sane anymore.

Traffic flies through the clean, wide, well-lighted tunnels morning, noon, and night. You’re more likely to get a speeding ticket than hit a backup. Compare this with 10, 20, or 30 years ago, when traffic on the old elevated Central Artery flowed like ketchup in cold weather.

Back then, the airport was a mirage. You could see it from downtown, teasing from just over the water, but a trip there at the wrong time — which could be anytime — could take an hour. These days, it’s a 10-minute cab or Silver Line ride from downtown, and from Newton or points west, it’s not that much longer. Because of the Big Dig, there’s no more convenient airport in the country.

The Big Dig is already leading to a real estate boom in a section of town, the South Boston waterfront, where there was nothing but gravelly parking lots. The project gave rise to the iconic Zakim Bridge, a veritable symbol of a refashioned city.

It has also given us all the potential of the Greenway, a sash of civility, complete with a carousel and fountains, where there used to be a decrepit wall of steel.

Wouldn’t you logically think that since that Baker and Patrick are trying to center their campaigns around jobs, they would covet the thousands upon thousands of trade jobs, engineering jobs, desk jobs that constituted the Big Dig? At one stretch, during the peak construction of the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were 5,000 men and women working on the project every day.

Put another way, the Big Dig helped people pay mortgages and buy new houses. It sent kids to college. People bought cars, furniture, refrigerators. How great does that look, now that the construction trades have unemployment rates that are 30, 40, or 50 percent?

Below ground, the Big Dig has given Boston a world-class infrastructure, perhaps the best in the nation and among the most advanced in the world. Upstairs, it offers a brand new park. Just imagine Boston in 2010, a competitive Boston, with a Central Artery so clogged that any reputable doctor would insist on performing an emergency bypass.

But in this upside-down world, the Big Dig is a political toxin, poisoning anyone who touches it, causing all sorts of politicos to do embarrassing gymnastics to avoid any contact with it, John Kerry being the lone exception. To tune into this gubernatorial race is to think it’s a bridge to nowhere, rather than a road to everywhere.

People are going to talk it down. That’s just the way this city is, and what politics everywhere has become. But believe one true thing long after this nasty campaign ends: Boston without the Big Dig is a place you don’t want to be. Your leaders just aren’t willing to say it.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at