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‘Big Dig’ May Be in Boston, but Its Roots Are on the Hill

But Reagan vetoed it. The House quickly voted to override, but the legislation fell one vote short in the Senate. At that point, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) was able to convince then-Sen. Terry Sanford (D-N.C.), a longtime friend, to switch his vote, and the program went forward.

“The folklore is that this was some enormous piece of pork that Ted and Tip got through,” Salvucci said. “But they were really just beating back an outrageous attempt by Reagan to deny Massachusetts the same thing all the other states got.”

Still, from the beginning, the project was dogged by questions of cost. Opponents claimed the initial cost estimates — $2.3 billion in 1983 — fell far short of the reality.

“The biggest warning sign was that the initial cost projections were a lie,” said Jeffrey Berry, a political scientist at Tufts University. “They deliberately underestimated the cost.”

But Salvucci argues he and his team were just following the standard procedure for estimating the costs of an interstate highway, figuring the cost as though the entire project was completed last year at last year’s prices. It was just an estimate, in other words, and did not take into account either future price changes or inflation, he said.

The Cost Balloons
However accurate the initial estimate, the costs began to spiral almost immediately. For Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the project was morphing into something much different than had been planned initially.

“The original idea was that we’d get a trade-in on this,” he said. “But it started out as a trade-in and became an earmark. When the costs became a lot more, it turned into an earmark.”

By 1991, many other states had completely finished their interstate highways, and more were finishing by the month. As other states finished their construction, the constituency for interstate highway funding dwindled — just as the Big Dig’s costs were increasing.

The George H.W. Bush administration proposed capping federal funding under the interstate highway program at $6 billion, and Congress agreed. This meant that any cost increases beyond $6 billion would be Massachusetts’ problem, Salvucci said.

This cap came just at the time when the state was working with the federal government to finalize plans for the Big Dig — a pivotal moment in determining the long-term cost of the project.

“The Federal Highway Administration was playing a traditional role prior to 1991. But once the cap was passed in ’91, FHA was paying zero cents on the dollar for any incremental cost,” Salvucci said. “They actually advocated for some of the big increases, and the state idiotically went along and did this stuff.”

With this, Congress began to play the role of giving the money over to the state, and not much else.

“All the delegation was asked to do was to make sure the money kept going and they did that,” said Michael Goldman, a former political consultant in Boston who worked for O’Neill, Dukakis, Kennedy and others. “The Democrats’ role was to bring in the bacon.”

The money was going straight to the state, where, Frank said, there was almost no oversight. And the federal government, its own contribution level capped, did little to supervise.

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