Big Dig's Big Bad Example

norabeck's picture

Noah Bierman, in the Boston Globe piece, 'No Big Dig Copycats' notes that the $15 billion dollar tunnel has led cities around the nation to look for lower cost, less disruptive solutions.

Bierman reviews the Big Dig impact on Seattle's decision with what to do with the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

"Seattle, like a growing number of cities around the country, is looking at taking down its elevated highway structure and replacing it with - nothing. The idea is to slow traffic in the city on ground-level streets, reclaim the waterfront, and let drivers who want to bypass downtown use another route."

"If you have eight different possible routes, the traffic will redistribute itself," said Cary Moon, director of the People's Waterfront Coalition in Seattle, which has been leading the campaign to get rid of the overpass, the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and add more public transit in its place.

The article also touches on the freeway teardown successes of San Francisco, Milwaukee, and Seoul South Korea.

Bierman also talked with John Norquist about Milwaukee and CNU's freeway teardown initiative. "Norquist argues strenuously that successful cities are not built on their lack of traffic congestion. He offers Detroit as an example of a city that has defeated congestion, but has yet to recover from its economic problems." "The thing that makes Boston valuable isn't its fast traffic," [Norquist] said. "The thing that makes Boston is its complexity."

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paytonc's picture

The repercussions continue

Having spent all of its money -- and more -- on the Big Dig, now Massachusetts is facing a huge bill for deferred maintenance on all its other infrastructure. Governing magazine this month reports that Massachusetts "is going to have to come up with an additional $15 billion to $19 billion over the next two decades for maintenance on existing transportation assets," even though it already has the highest bonded debt per capita of any state. (Issuing new bonds would be the obvious way to fund capital improvements.)

Massachusetts commuters are paying dearly for the Big Dig now, not just through taxes but through vastly higher transit fares and Turnpike tolls -- a double whammy hitting at the same time as record-high gas prices. For instance, MBTA cash subway fares soared from $0.85 in 2000 to $2.00 in 2007. Had fares increased at the rate of inflation (which the MBTA had promised, in fact), fares would've been half as high -- a mere $1.02! What happened was that many Big Dig costs that were tangentially related to transit were downloaded onto the MBTA, sending the agency into a downward financial spiral.

Seattle, Louisville, Buffalo, and other cities that are now considering spending vast sums on new downtown freeways should find more economical solutions that work within existing infrastructure networks. Their commuters -- i.e., their voters -- will thank them for it down the road.

Big Dig

Putting the freeway underground in Boston was preferable to rebuilding as an elevated structure. Its huge cost was financed with a heavy contribution of Federal funds secured by a Massachusetts Congressional delegation led by one of the most powerful politicians of the 20th Century, Speaker Tip O'Neil.This situation is hard to replicate. Seattle rejected the tunnel option after financing came into doubt. I expect that with the Fed highway trust fund almost empty there will be no more Big Digs.

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