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The Big Dig, officially known as the Central Artery/Tunnel Project (CA/T), was constructed in an attempt to reduce the congestion in the heart of the city of Boston. The massive highway project reroutes the Central Artery of Interstate 93 (I-93) underground and extends I-90 with the Ted Williams Tunnel.
MrJARichard / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)
The Big Dig became the most expensive (and perhaps most maligned) highway project ever in U.S. history. Countless delays, cost overruns, and scandals quickly incited public backlash. 24 years of planning and construction finally came to a close, at the end of 2007.
Public projects need to justify their price tags by fixing widespread issues and providing value to many. Often cited as a one of the prime examples of pork barrel or wasteful spending, the Big Dig has debatably failed to serve its purposes on multiple accounts and continues to hollow out taxpayer wallets to this day.
While not a legal or traditional case of theft, the Big Dig has arguably ripped off millions of citizens. We at the Zero Theft Movement are committed to preventing projects such as the Big Dig that have potentially contributed to the rigged layer of the U.S. economy, the layer that has allowed crony capitalists and corrupt officials to unethically profit off of the public.
Read on to learn all about how the historic highway project came to fruition and its effects on Boston residents.
Megacorporations and their lobbyists could be heavily influencing legislation and regulation. Do your part and protect the U.S. economy by joining the Zero Theft Movement.
The Origins of the Central Artery/Tunnel Project (CA/T)
The Central Artery of I-93 first opened in 1959, carrying about 75,000 vehicles per day on an elevated track winding through the heart of Boston.
Photograph of the Central Artery and downtown by Grant Spencer. From the Boston Public Library’s Spencer Grant Collection.
By the early 1990s, according to the Massachussetes government, Boston was experiencing a “world-class traffic problem,” with over 200,000 vehicles traveling on it daily. Traffic remained heavily congested for upwards of 10 hours each day, and the accident rate quadrupled the national average.
As Boston continued to grow, the MA government knew problems would only mount. They pinpointed three main issues they wanted to solve:
- The extreme traffic jams that were projected to get much worse in the 2000s, estimated to last up to 16 hours a day by 2010.
- The $500 million annual costs for motorists driving on the Central Artery. The high accident rate, wasted fuel from traffic, and late deliveries factored into the estimate.
- Improving access to the heart of the city, as well as to surrounding areas. Tens of thousands of residents did not have easy access into the city, making it harder for them to participate in the metropolitan economy.
An Effective Solution?
The CA/T has significantly reduced traffic in the Central Artery. According to a 2006 report from an economic development research group hired by the MA Turnpike Authority, traffic flow improved by 62% from 1995 to 2006 (construction began in 1991). They claim $167 million of savings per year, as well as better access to the Boston Logan International Airport and areas across the Charles River
Nevertheless, the Boston Globe countered the report cited above, claiming the research group did not factor in the areas surrounding Boston. The Globe found the development has just created bottlenecks elsewhere, with traffic reportedly doubling in some areas. Transportation analytics company INRIX released their annual study for 2019. INRIX found that Bostonians lose 149 hours stuck in traffic, the most out of all U.S. cities. 2019 was the second year in a row the city came in first for the worst rush-hour traffic. The study estimates each driver lost $2,205, on average, due to gas bills, insurance, wear and tear on their car.
The Total Monetary Cost of the Big Dig
While the effectiveness of the Big Dig might be debatable, the hefty, historic costs of the project is a well-documented fact.
When the CA/T first got proposed, the government claimed it would cost $2.5 billion. The sheer size and innovation of the project enamored many hopeful Bostonians, including members of the media. But that faith soon dwindled, chucked into the colossal hole in Boston’s heart. Costs had started to pile on, the completion date pushed back repeatedly. The Big Dig ended with a $14.6 billion price tag even after numerous amenities and features had been scrapped.
In 2014, however, then-Boston Transportation Secretary and his CFO revealed that the bill would not be paid off by state and federal taxpayers until ~2038. By then, interest and inflation will hike up the price to $24.3 billion.
ArnoldReinhold / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
McKinsey & Co., in a 2009 quarterly report, claimed: “If the US government could achieve the 15 percent or more productivity improvement we typically expect from a major private-sector change program, for instance, the savings to taxpayers would exceed $134 billion annually (more than $445 per citizen) on 2010 federal addressable spending of approximately $900 billion.” Is there substantial waste in the government contracting process?
Big Dig, Big Losses
One of the first questions you probably had was: did the Big Dig really require $24 billion?
The simple answer? No.
Incompetence, first and foremost, resulted in delays, shoddy work, lingering structural issues, and even death.
Before the completion of the Big Dig, leaks in the I-93 tunnel had long become frequent. It wasn’t until 2003-2004 that the public became aware of the leaks through (information) leaks. The Turnpike Authority dismissed the problems, claiming such problems were typical in such projects and that they were taking the necessary measures to prevent water damage.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Boston Globe, Boston.com, and WCVB-TV teamed up to investigate, and provide coverage on, the Big Dig. Engineering students and professors from the institution examined the tunnels and found that the leaks mainly resulted from the contractors’ inability to remove gravel and other contaminants before mixing the concrete. This study and a major leak in September, 2004 forced the Turnpike Authority to publicly acknowledge that the project continued to face many difficulties.
WCBV Boston reported:
“In September, a major leak in the I-93 north section of the Liberty Tunnel forced turnpike authority officials to acknowledge publicly that there was a problem. Now documents indicate that those officials and private contractors knew as far back as 2001 about thousands of ceiling and wall fissures, water damage to steel supports and fireproofing systems, and overloaded drainage systems—problems that persist even though the authority signed off on more than $10 million in cost overruns for repairs.”
$10 million on repairs during construction. The tunnel, to this day, experiences leaks that have stuck taxpayers with annual plumbing and repair bills as high as $7 million. And just as a little extra treat, inspectors have raised serious concerns about corrosion and rust in the tunnel.
In 2011, a small light fixture dropped from the ceiling of a Big Dig tunnel, prompting an investigation to make sure the occurrence was a one-off case. Engineers examined over 90% of the fixtures and suspected that salt (from the roads during winter and the nearby ocean) had caused the corrosion of the aluminum clips holding up the lights. Somehow, the contractors had failed to consider how, in the presence of salt water, aluminum deteriorates when it comes in direct contact with stainless steel.
CBS Boston quoted state highway administrator Frank DePaolo: “There’s 25,000 individual light fixtures. Every one of them will be replaced with a new, sealed plastic, LED fixture. We anticipate the total replacement cost would be $54 million.”
Aggregate Industries & Substandard Materials
The recurrence of leaks sparked an FBI investigation into the contractors and suppliers working on the Big Dig. The organization specifically focused much of their efforts on Aggregate Industries, the project’s major supplier of concrete.
According to the official press release from the FBI,
“The leftover loads of mixed concrete were dubbed ‘10-9 loads’ [old concrete mixed with new concrete] by the defendants, and did not meet Big Dig project specifications. The defendants concealed this fraud by falsifying concrete batch slips delivered to Big Dig inspectors and/or representatives of the general contractors at the various construction sites. These false batch reports were relied upon by the government to determine the quality and amount of concrete placed by the general contractors on the project.”
Over the course of a few years, Aggregate Industries and its managers came under trial. The official DOJ press release revealed, in 2007, that the company had “agreed to plead guilty and pay $50 million to resolve its criminal and civil liabilities in connection with a fraudulent scheme to deliver adulterated concrete to the Central Artery/Tunnel Project (“the Big Dig”).” A year prior, “…six management level employees of AGGREGATE were charged for their participation in the scheme.”
Boston transportation authorities finally decided to remove or cover the handrails used for the emergency walkways in the tunnel. This decision came after eight traffic deaths.
Public safety workers sarcastically dubbed the walkway handrails “ginsu guardrails.” They came up with the name, a reference to a kitchen knife company (Ginsu), due to the squared-off edges that have caused mutilitations and fatalities to passengers who’d been ejected from their vehicles.
Director of the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Dean Sicking, told the Boston Globe that the design of the railings were flawed in numerous ways: the width, the edges, and the distance between its horizontal runners. The Globe claims in that same 2011 report that “Documents released last summer showed that federal authorities had suggested that the railings might be dangerous and should be crash-tested before they were installed, but their doubts were shrugged off.”
Money definitely went into switching out the guardrails, but more importantly, eight people (however reckless) would have had a better chance of survival if the ginsu guardrails had not been used.
Ceiling collapse in the Ted Williams Tunnel
In the summer of 2006, concrete slabs and debris collapsed in the and crushed Milena Del Valle and injured her husband, Angel. The Big Dig had already experienced numerous delays, cost overruns, and substandard/fraudulent work by this point. This incident potentially brought the most severe backlash the project ever received.
In the Deferred Prosecution Agreement between the Offices of the MA Attorney General and Power Fasteners, this statement proves pertinent:
“The NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] further determined that the use of Fast Set epoxy was the cause of the ceiling collapse, because that formulation had poor ‘creep resistance,’ that is, it was not capable of sustaining the long-term loads inherent in the suspended ceiling design.”
The FBI press release shows that Power Fasteners were charged with “making a false statement in connection with the construction of a federally approved highway project, the I-90 connector tunnel.”
The document goes on to state, “The parties have also agreed that POWERS [Power Fasteners] pay a $100,000 fine as a penalty, taking into consideration the company’s $16 million settlement and deferred prosecution agreement with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as well as its payment of a $6 million civil settlement to the estate of the victim.”
In 1997, the Washington Post examined claims that project officials were using funds to win over and/or appease disgruntled Bostonians. The news outlet found three instances of such spending:
- $1.4 million to install soundproof windows and a new air conditioning system for painters and sculptors who live near the construction site.
- $1 million to develop a ‘fish startling’ system to scare fish away from underwater detonations necessary to build the Ted Williams Tunnel.
- $230,000 to buy the Boston Fire Department a new fire boat. James J. Kerasiotes, chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, defended the purchase: “If you say no, the fire chief is going to say, I’m not going to let you run cars through that tunnel.’ Well, guess what? If the fire chief doesn’t let you run cars through that tunnel, you don’t have a project.”
Although small sums in the grand scheme of the Big Dig, these reported expenditures (especially the third one) raise questions about how the budget was spent behind the scenes. The total project seems to have lacked accountability and oversight; it would not be surprising that negligence and wasteful spending potentially trickled down to the relatively minimal costs.
Learning from the Big Dig
A Big Dig worker came forward anonymously, penning his bittersweet experience of having worked on the Ted Williams Tunnel.
“It occurred to me pretty quickly that somebody might’ve been sleeping at the switch when it came time to inspect. What really makes me mad is that we were told these bolts were tested. We were told not to worry. My foreman swore the bolts were tested. My outrage has nothing to do with him—I’m sure he got his information from somewhere above him. I just think somebody pretty high up must have passed word down that we should feel good about these things, and so we did. I’m angry because this woman didn’t have to die. If even a half-assed inspection was done, this could have been caught. People can talk about poor engineering and shoddy work, but the simple fact is that this tragedy could have been prevented by an inspection.”
We can help ensure the construction is sound (especially in megaprojects) and spending is effective by demanding full transparency and having outside, independent experts involved. If that worker, or another one, had disclosed his reservations while the project was ongoing, great emotional and monetary costs could have been avoided.
Do YOU consider the Big Dig a Rip Off?
The project was supposed to be completed by 1998, with a total price tag of $2.56 billion ($7.4 billion adjusted for inflation as of 2020).
In reality, it ended in 2007. Costing $14.8 billion ($25 billion adjusted for inflation as of 2020).
That’s more than five times the original estimate.
The DOJ, soon after the completion of the CA/T, announced the project managers Bechtel and Parsons Brinckerhoff agreed to pay $407 million “to resolve its criminal and civil liabilities in connection with the collapse of part of the I-90 Connector Tunnel ceiling and defects in the slurry walls of the Tip O’ Neil tunnel.” Several smaller contractors had to pay about $51 million collectively.
Taxpayers will continue to foot the bill for the foreseeable future.
You might think that pork barrel spending and earmarks have no effect on you. Unfortunately, they do.We must be vigilant in our communities to make sure our tax dollars aren’t going to waste.
We at the Zero Theft Movement now pass the case along to you, providing you with a secure and powerful platform to voice your opinions. Other citizens interested in this area have performed their own investigation into the matter. All you need to do is take twenty minutes, review the proposals and vote! We must protect ourselves from getting ripped off.
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