The Big Dig — Truth and reconciliation | Nicole Gelinas

Mega-success for a mega-project

By Nicole Gelinas
October 3, 2010

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FOR TWO decades, the Big Dig, with its ballooning price tag and inscrutable traffic patterns, made Boston the nation’s laughingstock. Now, the joke is on everyone else.

The Big Dig is fading into history as a mega-project success, even as federal bailouts of Wall Street make its cost seem like chump change. Massachusetts is now ahead of the rest of America in having invested some recent political and financial capital in its infrastructure. The project’s real lesson, then, is not that it was a mistake, but that it was just the beginning of what the rest of the nation — and the state — must do.

Construction on the $15 billion Big Dig began in earnest in 1991 after nearly two decades of planning and concluded, more or less, by 2006. The Artery depression and bridge construction project certainly met corruption, farce, delays, inconveniences, and tragedy along the way — but so did earlier infrastructure marvels, including the Brooklyn Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge.

No government can do anything big without out making mistakes and inviting fraud. But human and institutional facts of life don’t mean that government should attempt nothing.

Boston and the region are better off today because of the Big Dig. Where retail businesses once permanently shuttered windows that faced the Artery, restaurants now have outdoor dining — raising property values over time. Southwest Airlines executives have said that one factor in their decision to launch service from Logan last year was that the project’s infrastructure improvements finally helped potential customers and workers to get there quickly and efficiently.

But Massachusetts politicians, stuck in a caricature, still don’t embrace the Big Dig. Governor Deval Patrick recently said that the state’s existing roads and bridges are in such bad shape because taxpayers and toll payers have had to skimp on maintenance in favor of the massive project.

This is a false choice. The problem is not that the Big Dig has consumed resources. Rather, it’s that the federal and state governments have increased education, health care, entitlement, and other spending at the expensive of needed infrastructure investment.

A wealthy nation should be able to afford to maintain its existing infrastructure and invest in ambitious new projects. The fix is to find money for both old and new roads, bridges, flood protection, and transit systems — by making sure we’re getting our bang for our buck, including cutting back on public-sector pensions and benefits that don’t remotely match what’s on offer in the private sector anymore.

Unfortunately, Washington hasn’t yet begun to lead the way. Last year’s stimulus bill, for example, devoted two-thirds of its $229 billion in state aid to education and health care spending, without asking for public-workforce concessions in return. Comparatively little of the stimulus — less than 10 percent overall — went to infrastructure.

Eventually, the nation will have to correct this imbalance, as deterioration and population growth outstrip existing assets. When the rest of the country starts to dig big with an eye toward its future, it can look to Massachusetts for examples of the challenges — and rewards.

Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, which published her 2007 case study of the Big Dig.

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