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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.”
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.
“In 1994 and 1995, there was very little federal involvement at all in the Big Dig, not only from Congress but from the Federal Highway Administration and the Department of Transportation,” said Scott Amey, with the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group.
The costs rose dramatically as additional roadway was added to the project and changes meant delays, which meant inflation, Salvucci said. And then the questions snowballed.
In 1995, POGO released a blistering report, pointing out costs had ballooned from an estimated $2.3 billion to $9.6 billion. POGO called on the Department of Transportation to freeze federal funding for the project “until solutions are found for the many cost, design and managerial problems that plague this project.”
The report stated, “The federal government is responsible for 80% to 90% of the final cost, but is playing almost no oversight role in how the money is being spent. ... The federal government has written a blank check to Massachusetts, who in turn has given free rein to the primary contractor, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas.”
Then, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) leapt into action. “He brought in the contractors and made them jump through a bunch of hoops. Reports had to be submitted on a semi-annual basis.” Wolf would continue to use his committee powers to call for increased oversight, requesting audits, financial reports and testimony from key officials throughout the rest of the projects duration.
Separately, as chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, John McCain (R-Ariz.) also called for increased scrutiny of the project.
“When McCain was chairman of Commerce, and Wolf was chairman of Transportation, they and the Massachusetts delegation did just a five-star job of oversight,” said Kenneth Mead, the inspector general of the Department of Transportation from 1997 to 2006, who know works for the law firm Baker Botts.
But Scott Harshbarger, the Massachusetts attorney general from 1991 to 1999, said that when he ran for governor as a Democrat in 1998, he tried to make the Republican administration of the Big Dig a central part of his campaign, but Capitol Hill leaders objected.
“People were asking me not to raise the issue. It was like I was trying to kill the golden goose,” he said. “In 1997-98, they were saying, ‘You’re giving McCain ammunition every time you raise the question.’”
Meanwhile, McCain, a self-styled pork-buster, was furious about all the federal dollars going to the project, and he became increasingly involved with attempts to step up oversight.
In the summer of 2000, he introduced legislation to formally cap federal funding for the Big Dig, whose costs now exceeded $13 billion.
“In my view, a federal cap would help ensure the project managers rein in their runaway costs and project overruns because they won’t be able to expect the rest of the nation’s highway dollars to be funneled into their project,” McCain said in a statement at the time.
Congress passed the cap of $8.549 billion that year. While Interstate highway dollars already had been capped in 1991, this second cap went even further, ensuring that no federal transportation dollars — not even money that is usually at the state’s discretion — went to the Big Dig.
Salvucci said he sees the 2000 vote as a way for McCain, then running for president, to grandstand. “Every state gets to spend its dollars any way it wants, but Massachusetts can’t spend the money on the Central Artery?” he asked. “It was a punitive thing that McCain got through.”
But Mead disagreed. “This was Congress at its best,” he said. “McCain was on it.”
After the cap was passed, Congress was relatively dormant on the Big Dig, especially given that the next couple of years saw a number of ribbon-cutting ceremonies and a general winding down of the construction.
But the issue flared up again in 2004, when the tunnels began to spring leaks.
In April 2005, Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, went to Boston to hold a Congressional hearing on the leaks. In written testimony, Mead called for a top-to-bottom review of quality issues.
“The authority and the Federal Highway Administration should be taking steps to ensure that there are no other construction quality lapses,” he said. “They should consider implementing a project-wide quality review.”
But the review, which Mead requested, never happened. “It was one of the most frustrating experiences of my career,” he said. A little over a year after Mead testified that a quality review was in order, Del Valle died in her car from the concrete collapse. After the July 10 accident, politicians sought to increase oversight of the project again.
“For all intents and purposes, there was no oversight of the project,” Harshbarger said. “Now everyone wants to oversee it.” Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) has now taken over control of the project, promising to turn it around, just like he did the once-troubled Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002.
The accident has created some political worries on Capitol Hill as well. Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) complained to the press that the Big Dig would “absolutely” impact the delegation’s ability to bring home money for Boston.
And in July, Kennedy said Congressional committees plan to hold hearings into the tunnel collapse and the overall project. “We want to make sure the issue of safety is front and center,” Kennedy told The Associated Press.