No Big Dig copycats

As other cities consider removing elevated highways, activists cite Boston as a reason not to go underground

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / March 14, 2008

If all had gone as planned, the mayor of Seattle would don a hard hat next year and break ground on a multibillion-dollar project to replace the city's downtown overpass with a tunnel.

But in a post-Big Dig world, that vision has popped like a $15 billion balloon.

In a ballot initiative last March, Seattle voters weighed in on a waterfront tunnel project, smaller in scope than the Big Dig, but similar in goals. In the run-up to the vote, the words big and dig became political shorthand for bloat and delay, with shoddiness thrown in for good measure.

Seventy percent of Seattle voters said no, thanks. On the same ballot, they also rejected a replacement overpass.

Instead, Seattle, like a growing number of cities around the country, is looking at taking down its elevated highway structure and replacing it with - nothing. The idea is to slow traffic in the city on ground-level streets, reclaim the waterfront, and let drivers who want to bypass downtown use another route.

Like-minded civic activists and politicians are urging similar plans from Louisville to Buffalo, from the Bronx to Toronto. In some cases, the advocates are coming to Boston, enjoying the reconnected city, then consulting with urban planners here on how to connect neighborhoods without the high costs and logistical headaches of digging a tunnel.

"The Big Dig experience was certainly used against us," said Tim Ceis, Seattle's deputy mayor, who supported a tunnel. As Seattle debated its project, the Big Dig faced a variety of setbacks: spiraling costs and legal wrangling among contractors, including Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, and the tunnel accident that killed Milena del Valle of Jamaica Plain.

"The tiles fell right in the middle of our debate about this," Ceis said. "That didn't help. And also, Parsons Brinckerhoff was the primary consultant here."

Since the vote, Ceis said, "we're looking for a nonfreeway solution."

Those who want to remove elevated highways in other cities take care to leave the Big Dig out of their debates. Tyler Allen heads a community group in Louisville that wants to redirect Interstate 64 traffic so that it no longer runs downtown. He has come to Boston to meet with Big Dig planners and believes the project is an inspiring example of a group of residents determined to reclaim their city.

But he calls the Big Dig "a highly problematic legacy," because "it is perceived as the ultimate pork barrel project."

"You really can't mention the Big Dig, because everybody knows it was obscenely expensive," he said.

In the middle of the last century, elevated highways through downtowns were a sign of progress, offering quick truck routes from ports and fast getaways for suburbanites. They often cut through poor and minority neighborhoods, creating what many saw as further blight, economic division, and isolation.

As these overpasses age, some civic leaders want to redevelop their waterfronts and reconnect the old neighborhoods to the city. Many of the downtown factories that needed the truck routes have moved out of the cities, as the price of downtown land has gone up.

When modern advocates for removing elevated highways cite a model for their own communities, they invariably point to San Francisco, not Boston. In 1991, leaders there decided to tear down the old Embarcadero double-decker roadway after it was damaged in a 1989 earthquake. A ground-level boulevard took its place and spawned redevelopment along the waterfront.

"If you have eight different possible routes, the traffic will redistribute itself," said Cary Moon, director of the People's Waterfront Coalition in Seattle, which has been leading the campaign to get rid of the overpass, the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and add more public transit in its place.

Milwaukee took down a piece of a downtown overpass in 2002. Seoul did it in 2005, uncovering a river that ran through the middle of the city and adding walkways and fountains.

"It's the Big Dig without the big dig," said Anthony Flint, public affairs director at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge and author of a forthcoming book about the battles between renowned urban planners Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses over urban freeways. "It's what's on top, and the elimination of the elevated structure, but none of the tunnels. "I don't think that a Big Dig is ever going to happen again," Flint said. "It's just too darned expensive."

Competition for federal road money is intense. Political titans like the late House speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. of Cambridge, who had championed the Big Dig and brought home much of the funding, are rare.

Kenneth Kruckemeyer, a former transportation official in Boston and codirector of the Cities in the 21st Century for the International Honors Program in Boston, served on a state panel in Washington that helped evaluate Seattle's doomed tunnel plan. Kruckemeyer believes that the Big Dig will leave a mixed legacy: He appreciates that it encouraged more pedestrian activity and reclaimed the city surface, but said that outsiders judge it only by its failure to meet deadlines, budgets, and standards of quality construction.

"It's fair to say the Big Dig did not achieve any of those three things in the way it was managed," Kruckemeyer said.

Without that legacy, including long disruption to the daily lives of Bostonians, Seattle voters might have approved a tunnel, he said.

"But I'm not sure that would have been good if the tunnel had fared better" in Seattle, he said. "I don't think the cautiousness that people have because of the Big Dig is a bad thing."

David Miller, mayor of Toronto, said the general attitude in his city is that a tunnel is too expensive and too disruptive to build.

Miller said repairs on the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto are draining nearly 2 percent of the yearly property tax. Knocking down a 3-mile stretch of the highway and replacing it with a ground-level road would cost about $1.5 billion Canadian. A tunnel would cost two or three times that, he said. None of the potential solutions is cheap.

"The challenge for us is: It's incredibly expensive, and we don't have Tip O'Neill," Miller said.

Though Miller built his reelection campaign around the issue and supports a tear-down without a tunnel, the city has yet to reach a consensus. The tear-downs tend to be more popular among professional planners, environmentalists, and their acolytes than residents. People who grew up in the era of freeways can find it hard to believe that tearing them down will result in anything but gridlock.

"I don't see how they can put all that traffic on the surface," said Mary Margaret Haugen, who heads the transportation committee of the Washington state Senate. Haugen said traffic on Interstate 5, the major north-south artery, could grow dramatically, adding hours to commutes, if the Alaskan Way is torn down.

The mayor of Louisville, Jerry Abramson, is also opposed to local efforts to tear down an overpass that runs along the redeveloped waterfront and reroute traffic onto another highway.

"No one would propose taking up a section of rail in Grand Central Station and not replacing that," Abramson said.

John O. Norquist, a former mayor of Milwaukee, concedes that his plan to tear down a 0.8-mile stretch of an elevated highway would not have passed a public referendum.

Instead, he persuaded Milwaukee's downtown property owners that the old Park East Freeway was hurting their land values and undermining economic progress. Then he took the plan to the governor and bartered a deal, he said.

Norquist is so convinced of the economic and cultural values of the project that he now goes around the country advocating highway removals, as president of the Congress of New Urbanism.

Norquist argues strenuously that successful cities are not built on their lack of traffic congestion. He offers Detroit as an example of a city that has defeated congestion, but has yet to recover from its economic problems.

"The thing that makes Boston valuable isn't its fast traffic," he said. "The thing that makes Boston is its complexity."

Noah Bierman can be reached at

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