From the two white triangles of the cable-stayed bridge that soar out of the Boston skyline, to the clean concrete tunnels that snake below the ground, the Big Dig seems embedded in the state of Massachusetts, in its ground, in its sky and in its politics.
The project was conceived in the 1970s to replace the rusting, elevated six-lane Central Artery in Boston. But to understand the increasingly obvious dark side of the project — the cost overruns, the lack of oversight, the inadequacy of investigations and inquiries — one must follow the money. To Congress.
The Big Dig, long a contentious issue, became even more controversial this summer when a heavy piece of concrete detached from an Interstate 90 tunnel ceiling and killed 38-year-old Milena Del Valle as her car was passing through. State officials have rushed to order investigations of the system’s safety. But while the Big Dig has become Topic A in Massachusetts in recent weeks, the issue is not receiving much attention in Washington, D.C.
Some Congress-watchers say it ought to be. From the inception of the project, the Massachusetts Congressional delegation has held the purse strings of the Big Dig. Over the nearly two decades of work, the state’s delegation has played an integral role in shaping the course of a project whose costs ballooned from an estimated $2.3 billion in 1983 to $14.6 billion in July.
Birth of the Big Dig Tip’s Tunnel, as some affectionately dubbed the project, was never just another earmark.
When President Dwight Eisenhower passed legislation in 1956 creating the Interstate Highway System, states were given the right to 90 percent federal funding for the construction of interstates. But Massachusetts already had built its highways without federal funding. So while the Bay State dutifully paid gasoline taxes to fund the system, it never received the funds given to other states, said Fred Salvucci, former Massachusetts secretary of transportation and one of the creators of the Big Dig.
The idea proposed by the Massachusetts delegation in the 1970s was that the state would cash in on the funds it felt it deserved and put them toward the Big Dig, which included several interstate highways.
Then-Rep. Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) “was very much involved in steering this legislation through and making it a high priority for Congress,” said Fred Beuttler, the Deputy House Historian. “Since his home state was Massachusetts and the project was focused there, he made it his prerogative to ensure passage of this bill.”
O’Neill, soon to become Speaker of the House, slipped the project into a 1976 transportation reauthorization bill. But the project idled, first as then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (D) lost re-election in 1978 and then as the Reagan administration slowed the approval process for the project, Salvucci said.
The project initially was named the Central Artery Project and was dubbed the “Big Dig” in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
In 1987, following years of lobbying, O’Neill and then-Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.) managed to convince Congress to approve the Big Dig as a part of a public works bill.
“It was bipartisan,” Salvucci said. “People thought it was fair because it was already authorized in ’76.”