THE AGONY AND THE ACTIVISM: Looking Back at the Big Dig

A while ago, following the fatal collapse of some ceiling panels in the Big Dig tunnels, Commonwealth magazine published interviews with local pundits about what went wrong with the management and public relations aspects of the gargantuan, 30-year project.  Some of the issues they raise include the need for:

  • A strong leader and management team within the appropriate state agency with sufficient independence, power and talent to manage the contractor as well as keep the project from becoming a patronage dumping ground.
  • Regular and honest outreach to keep the public informed and supportive as the project, and its budget, evolve.
  • An exit strategy with the contractor if the work doesn’t meet expectations and a “succession” plan in place for others to finish the job if needed.

But there is another perspective that is equally important – at least to those of us who have spent our lives working for progressive social change.  From that perspective, the key issue is not project management or contract oversight.  The issue is how to maximize the project’s positive contribution to the livability and viability of our communities, the quality of our air and water, the sustainability of our resource use patterns, and the equitable distribution of the project’s costs and benefits.


From Transit To Traffic – The Background

It’s hard to remember, but the initial idea for the Big Dig was a minor part of the Boston Transportation Planning Review (BTPR) process, created in response to growing protests against the Inner Belt and associated highway projects that would have ripped apart huge swaths of the region’s residential areas.  (Full disclosure: the house I now live in was one that would have been torn down.)  In setting up the BTPR, Governor Frank Sargent said:

Four years ago, I was the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Works, our road-building agency. Then, nearly everyone was sure that highways were the only answer to transportation problems for years to come. We were wrong. Today, we know more clearly what are real needs are: what our environment means to us, what a community means to us, and what is valuable to us as a people.  The plan will….integrate road-building with mass transit, and it will study some of these other imaginative means of moving goods and people: park-and-ride systems, metered traffic on expressways, special bus lanes, and the host of other space-age approaches now available to transportation planners.

The BTPR process produced a “strong consensus” about the need for “an aggressive transit expansion program” including both rail and trolley lines.

Soon afterwards, newly elected Governor Michael Dukakis appointed Fred Salvucci – who had been active in the fight against the Inner Belt – as Secretary of Transportation.  Salvucci said that instead of tearing down neighborhoods, the state should up space for development by burying the heavily congested elevated down-town sections of I-93.  The original plan for what became the Big Dig didn’t even include a new river crossing.

Going Forward By Stepping Sideways 

As Big Dig plans evolved, state officials were required to respond to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act (MEPA) requirements that major construction describe potential environmental impacts.  This led to conflicting estimates of the net effect on air quality that would be caused by the increased capacity of the new project – more pollution-causing vehicles versus less congestion and the burial of the road.  The Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) took legal action on the basis that the project would undermine the state’s federally mandated Compliance Plan to meet standards set by the Clean Air Act.  CLF demanded major mitigating expansion and upgrading of commuter rail, trolley line, and bus transit. They also pushed for the creation of suburban “park and ride” facilities, restrictions on the growth of inner-city parking spaces, and other measures.  It wasn’t until the end of the Dukakis era that outgoing Secretary of Transportation Salvucci finally agreed to sign a legally binding commitment with CLF pledging the state to fulfill a variety of the demanded improvements.

For some people, using the Clean Air Act as leverage to shape transportation policy and projects is gross manipulation of the purposes of both.  It’s similar to the fury that western loggers felt about environmentalists’ use of the Endangered Species Act to regulate their industry.

But it is part of the job of progressives to point out the connections, to fight against business’ desire to externalize costs and against political leaders desire to keep issues separate in order to minimize opposition.  The Big Dig’s mitigation commitments would have probably become as mythical as the Cape Cod Tunnel if CLF hadn’t found a basis to sue the state and get a legally enforceable commitment.  And for all the state’s subsequent efforts to postpone or deny its obligations, a lot of the original BTPR vision and CLF’s demands have been accomplished, with more to come.  So a key Big Dig lesson is the value of using whatever tools you have to force concessions – even if it means creating new and officially unintended legal connections.

The Use and Danger of Hitching a Ride

Smart legislators try to attach an otherwise difficult-to-pass policy or project to a “must-pass” bill or budget.  It’s not pretty, but it’s legal; and it is a key way for Legislative leaders to pull together majority support for action around larger or more controversial issues – a part of the give-and-take among competing interests that is the essence of the “dirty democracy” we enjoy.

Progressive advocates are often pursuing goals that will upset the status quo.  The more those goals will upset powerful elites, the less likely they are to get government approval or be directly fundable.  But effective advocacy groups do have the ability to mobilize protests, to bring some of the dubious aspects of elite-supported projects to public attention.  So, in order to avoid potential disruption, elite decision-makers sometimes include some of the advocates’ desires around the periphery of major efforts.   For example, as debate escalated about the Big Dig’s exit to the north (what kind of bridge or tunnel?) the state sought to ameliorate opposition by offering another set of mitigating measures along the lower basin under the new span – three new parks along the “lost half-mile” from the McGrath to the Washington Street bridge, pedestrian bridges linking it all together, basketball and tennis courts, and other improvements to nearby open spaces and building.

Riding through obstacles by sitting in the rear car of a train pulled by someone else’s locomotive is a time honored strategy.  But this makes your own success dependent on the larger project’s – if they become a train wreck, you’ll be the first fatality.  It also makes you vulnerable to efforts by the rail road operators to unhook your car and let it drift off to a stop!  Even if you can stay attached, being a peripheral and non-critical-path component of a larger effort makes it hard to keep project management focused on your priorities, leading to delays and downgrading until all that’s left are skinny remnants of your original vision.

There were a lot of rear-end cars attached to the Big Dig, from the Horticultural Society’s dreams of revival to pedestrian/bicyclists hopes for a welcoming greenway to the business community’s need for downtown revival.  Not all those goals, or the many others in a similar situation, have been realized.  Another advocacy lesson from the Big Dig is that if you are riding in someone else’s train, remember to keep careful track of your connection!

Do The Good Stuff First

Murphy was right –projects will take longer and cost more than anticipated.  Which means that most projects run out of time and money near the end.  And the first things to get ditched are non-critical-path components.

From an advocacy perspective, this means that it is vital to identify the aspects of the project that will provide the most important public benefits (perhaps because they will have the most immediate impact, or help the largest number of people, or change the nature of power relationships, etc.) and push to get them included in the first phases of work so that there is time (and budget) to deal with any unforeseen problem – especially if those benefits come from activities not essential to the main thrust of the project.

Get It In Writing

If Fred Salvucci hadn’t signed the Memorandum of Understanding with CLF there would have been little basis for subsequent legal efforts to force the state to live up to its commitments.  As a person familiar with early Big Dig advocacy efforts suggested, part of Salvucci’s motivated may have been to tie the hands of this successors – forcing them to have to deal with projects that he personally liked but didn’t have funds or political approval to do himself.

In fact, it seems very strange that Governor Patrick isn’t using this Big Dig lesson around the Green Line extension, and some other projects as well – committing the state to desperately needed transit expansions hoping that evolving political circumstances will make it easier for subsequent Administrations to deal with the cost.

Ultimately, It’s All About Power

In every society all decisions – economic, political, educational, judicial, even cultural and social – reflect the power realities around them.  But power is a dynamic process.  The most power is held by those with wealth or institutional authority, the ability to shape the way we understand issues or to threaten violence.  But there are numerous counter-thrusting flows – from the survival tactics of the poor to workers’ efforts to unionize, from insurgent political movements to law suits demanding the upholding of rights.

The outcome of any major project or policy depends on the alignment of forces at its inception and during its implementation – which can lead to unintended consequences as the balance of power shifts.  The Big Dig was begun at a time when the environmental movement was strong and anti-highway sentiment was growing.  But during the decades of planning and construction, the political climate changed – leading to the dilution of what remained of the original progressive intent.

Fortunately, the years of public protest had led to significantly expanded opportunities for public input in transportation planning projects.  Early plans called for the surface road above the tunnel to have up to 10 lanes, even though the whole point of the project was to move cars underground.   But a citizen’s review group had been formed which was able to examine surface layout plans block by block and use a variety of tactics to reduce the amount of pavement.  Public engagement, supported by advocacy insights, can make a difference.

The Big Dig still has many good ideas and unfilled promises dangling like page markers out from its now closed books.  It’s now time to learn the lessons, continue or revive the campaigns, and move on.  We’re very unlikely to see anything as large as the Big Dig happen again within our lifetimes.  But there are lots of other opportunities waiting out there – preferably at surface level!


Thanks to David Luberoff, Rafael Mares, Ann Hershfang, and many others who have asked to remain anonymous for talking with me about this intimidatingly complicated history.  None of them have any responsibility for (and probably disagree with much of) what I have written!



Other relevant posts:

>GREEN LINE EXTENSION: State Needs To Make The Trains Run On Time


>Picking Transportation Spending Priorities

>YOU CAN’T PLAN A ROUTE UNLESS YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE GOING: Comments on MassDOT’s 2010-2015 Capital Investment Plan

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