Can Boston Call the 'Big Dig' a Success?

The mega infrastructure project was supposed to make the city a less congested, more livable place to work and live. It has succeeded.

It's election season in Massachusetts and as candidates for various offices, including governor, stake out their ground on a number of issues, that infrastructure project known as the Big Dig is in the spotlight once again. Gubanatorial candidate Charles Baker has faced questions about his role in financing the project.

Just about everybody has heard of the massive infrastructure project that buried one of the country's most congested highways underground, providing more capacity to move traffic through Boston while turning the footprint of the former elevated highway into a string of parks, open spaces and lots for cultural, residential and business devellopment.

And everybody knows about the problems that ensued during construction: a $2 billion project started in 1991 that swelled into a $15 billion financial burden for the state. Plagued by cost-overruns, corruption, poor management oversight and quality issues, the Big Dig soon came to symbolize everything that is wrong with public sector infrastructure projects. Or did it?

Infrastructure That Works

Since the Big Dig ended in 2006, criticism of the project has continued unabated.  In Seattle, opponents of a plan to turn an unsightly and unstable highway viaduct into a tunnel have held up the Big Dig as an example of why the city should avoid such an infrastructure project.

But in the four years since the elevated Central Artery highway disappeared beneath the surface of Boston, opening up the downtown for the first time in nearly 50 years, there's a growing consensus that Boston's mega project is now a mega success.  The traffic and congestion has not only disappeared, but has been untangled, thanks to the massive road, bridge and tunnel realignmment.

The economics of this infrastructure overhaul are beginning to look better and better as businesses evaluate the transportation situation in Boston and like what they see. For example, Southwest Airlines has been expanding its presence at Logan International Airport because of how the Big Dig has improved the movement of people and goods in the area.

And then there's the aesthetic value of what the Big Dig gives the city of Boston. When a city as old and dense as Boston suddenly gains 15 acres of prime land for parks and open space, people respond in a positive way. While the chain of parks known as the Greenway
is still a work in progress, the general consensus has been overwhelmingly positive. Downtown Boston, always an interesting place to walk, has become even more appealing.

There are many good reasons to criticize how the Big Dig was run and financed. But as a major city infrastructure project, it has succeeded and will pay dividends for the for decades to come, which is exactly what a large-scale infrastructure project is supposed to do.