The big debacle
Boston's $14.6B showpiece, the largest public works project in U.S. history, is falling apart.
By Alex Beam

(Fortune Magazine) -- If Boston were a stock, it would be Apple Computer: great highs, great lows. The year 2004 was a high: Our beloved Red Sox won the World Series, and our not-so-beloved Senator John Kerry didn't totally disgrace himself in the presidential election.

Right now, Boston looks as if it is bottoming out. In the birthplace of the community-policing vogue, homicides are skyrocketing. We are losing population - again - which means we will again have to kick, scratch, and bite to keep our congressional delegation intact.

The Big Dig

And you have probably heard the worst: The Big Dig, our showpiece $14.6 billion bridge-tunnels-and-highways project, which was to have been the gateway to the new, visitor-friendly Boston, is falling apart.

How bad is it? Tragically so. In early July a 38-year-old Costa Rican newlywed, who might have had a reasonable expectation of driving safely through a thoroughly modern tunnel designed by construction giants Bechtel Corp. and Parsons Brinckerhoff, died when a three-ton concrete slab fell onto the Buick sedan in which she was riding.

It was not a freak accident. Preliminary investigations revealed hundreds of potential problem areas. Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney called the tragedy a "systemic failure, not an anomaly or a fluke."

Things weren't meant to be like this. Conceived a quarter-century ago, the Big Dig buried the ugly, elevated Interstate 93 flyover that cut through Boston like a scar.

An eight-lane tunnel replaced the steel and concrete eyesore, and we acquired two more infrastructure treats in the bargain: a beautiful new Christian Menn -designed bridge north of the city and the supersleek new Ted Williams tunnel to Logan International Airport, never easy to reach on a good day.

The largest public works project in history

Here's the beauty part: You paid for most of it. The Big Dig, the final mega-project of the Interstate Highway System and by far the largest public works project in U.S. history, was 85% federally funded - at least until the massive cost overruns kicked in.

With powerful barons like late House Speaker Tip O'Neill and Senator Ted Kennedy, the Bay State was "a huge outlier" in the Capitol Hill spoils system, says David Luberoff, an urban expert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government: "For every gas-tax dollar we sent to Washington, we got three back."

It will come as no surprise that the 27-acre garden promenade to be built where I-93 came down will be named after Rose Kennedy, Ted's mother. The Tip O'Neill Tunnel runs underneath the Rose Kennedy Greenway. All nomenclature is local.

Politics nurtured the Big Dig, and politics has taken over the investigation into the shoddy workmanship. All the key players are running for something. Romney, a former Bain & Co. executive, has taken charge of the fix-it job.

He is running for president, just as his businessman father, George, did in 1967. Cleaning up the Big Dig would be a feather in the younger Romney's cap, akin to his much-publicized rescue of the scandal-plagued 2002 Salt Lake City games. Much publicized by Romney himself, that is, in a book titled Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership, and the Olympic Games.

Assailing the Democratic pols responsible for the cost overruns and quality shortfalls in the Big Dig fits right into Romney's cynical, run-against-Massachusetts playbook. On his frequent out-of-state campaign trips, Romney depicts his "home" as a latter-day Gomorrah, awash in gay marriage, stem cell research, and pro-abortion fanatics. Now we are the town that can't build straight.

Snapping at Romney's heels is Massachusetts attorney general Tom Reilly, who is pursuing a criminal investigation into the accident. Reilly is running for Romney's job.

The criminal inquiry provides a handy excuse for Reilly to set aside his fruitless, two-year-long effort to recover $108 million in alleged cost overruns by Bechtel and Parsons Brinckerhoff. Gently put, the contractors have some very talented lawyers, and the likelihood of any cost recovery is modest at best.

A week after the tragedy, Senators Kennedy and Kerry showed up in Boston to make windy declarations. Kennedy said Congress would want to hold hearings. Kerry assured Bostonians that he felt their pain: "The congestion that we're seeing and the incredible backup really is a statement to the importance of this project and to the difference it has made to the lives of people in this community."

Yes, he is running for president too. Again. Hope springs eternal. Except in Boston, where our stock is falling sharply, with few signs of a quick recovery.

Alex Beam is a Boston Globe columnist.


Airbus: Losing altitude

Bunker mentality: The Mideast crisis. Top of page