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Boston's Big Dig - A Tale of Two Cities

Jeffrey Syken

Not so very long ago, a monster resided in the fair city of Boston. No, it’s not the famous 37-foot, 2-inch tall left-field wall at Fenway Park. This other “Green Monster” was more invasive, more visible; tearing a wide swath through the heart of the city while cutting-off whole neighborhoods and districts from one another and separating the city from its beautiful, historic waterfront. Painted a putrid green, the elevated Central Artery, a/k/a “John F. Fitzgerald Expressway” (named for the former Boston Mayor and maternal grandfather of JFK), caused more problems than it solved when it opened in 1959. It was obvious to most Bostonians that the edifice was not only an eyesore and barrier to commercial and social discourse, but it quickly became a slow-moving parking lot for most of the waking hours of the day, making it a source of frustration, anger and derision to motorists who came to dread their daily commute. Something had to be done, but what? Boston’s “soup soil” (mostly landfill dating from the colonial-era when the Shawmut Peninsula was expanded) seemed to bar a subterranean solution.

Native son Frank Salvucci was well aware of the problem and determined to solve it once and for all, but this time nobody was going to lose their home or business in the doing, as his grandmother had (to make way for the Massachusetts Turnpike). An MIT trained civil engineer and professor, in the 1960s Salvucci injected himself into the then raging debates concerning the Boston area’s highway infrastructure. Politically astute and impassioned, he would serve for a dozen years as the Commonwealth’s Transportation Secretary. It was at this time that the genesis of the idea of burying the Central Artery underground, in essentially the same right-of-way as the elevated Central Artery, began making more and more sense to him. With slurry walls, the tunnels could be created without bringing the life of the city to an abrupt halt. For Salvucci, this was a “win-win” situation; Boston would remove the blight of the Central Artery while at the same time modernize and increase the capacity of the interstate highways transiting through Boston (and nobody’s grandmother would be displaced). Better yet, the Federal Government would pick up most of the tab since the Central Artery/Tunnel Project (as it came to be known) fell under the auspices of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Interstate Highway Act of 1956.

Relief of 1-93 congestion on the elevated Central Artery would come in 1995 when the first element of the CA/T Project opened, extending 1-90 (MassPike) to Logan International Airport via the new Ted Williams Tunnel under Boston Harbor. Despite being many times over budget, the benefits of the new tunnel were immediately apparent to all. Thus, the other challenges of the CA/T Project could/would be faced and met; relocating underground infrastructure, tunneling under Fort Point Channel with its difficult soil and infrastructure conditions, the complex I-90/93 Interchange, use of the slurry wall technique to create the tunnels in the Central Artery’s right-of-way without disrupting I-93 traffic flow, etc. The “Candle on the Cake” would be the new Charles River crossing; a hybrid cable-stayed bridge. Horrendous cost overruns that made the CA/T Project the costliest highway in U.S. history, tragic design/construction errors/flaws and chronic leaking would all become urban legend in Boston. But to those who remember Boston before and after the “Big Dig” (as it came to be known) will tell you a tale of two cities; one with a diminished, stagnant future and the other with a limitless, bright future that’s now being realized. All thanks to the vision of one man, Frank Salvucci - the “Father of the Big Dig.”

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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