DCN ARCHIVES

March 27, 2008

Big Dig debacle renders other U.S. cities wary of tunnel projects

Community activist says Boston tunnel “is perceived as the ultimate pork barrel project.”

Seattle

If all had gone as planned, the mayor of Seattle would don a hard hat next year and break ground on a multibillion-dollar project to replace the city’s downtown overpass with a tunnel.

But in a post-Big Dig world, that vision has popped like a US$15-billion balloon.

In a ballot initiative last March, Seattle voters weighed in on a waterfront tunnel project, smaller in scope than the Big Dig, but similar in goals. In the run-up to the vote, the words big and dig became political shorthand for bloat and delay, with shoddiness thrown in for good measure.

Seventy percent of Seattle voters said no, thanks. On the same ballot, they also rejected a replacement overpass, according to a story in the Boston Globe.

Instead, 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.

Like-minded civic activists and politicians are urging similar plans from Louisville to Buffalo, from the Bronx to Toronto. In some cases, the advocates are coming to Boston, enjoying the reconnected city, then consulting with urban planners here on how to connect neighborhoods without the high costs and logistical headaches of digging a tunnel.

“The Big Dig experience was certainly used against us,” said Tim Ceis, Seattle’s deputy mayor, who supported a tunnel. As Seattle debated its project, the Big Dig faced a variety of setbacks: spiralling costs and legal wrangling among contractors, including Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, and the tunnel accident that killed Milena del Valle of Jamaica Plain.

Those who want to remove elevated highways in other cities take care to leave the Big Dig out of their debates. Tyler Allen heads a community group in Louisville that wants to redirect Interstate 64 traffic so that it no longer runs downtown. He has come to Boston to meet with Big Dig planners and believes the project is an inspiring example of a group of residents determined to reclaim their city.

But he calls the Big Dig “a highly problematic legacy,” because “it is perceived as the ultimate pork barrel project.”

“You really can’t mention the Big Dig, because everybody knows it was obscenely expensive,” he said.

In the middle of the last century, elevated highways through downtowns were a sign of progress, offering quick truck routes from ports and fast getaways for suburbanites.

They often cut through poor and minority neighborhoods, creating what many saw as further blight, economic division, and isolation.

As these overpasses age, some civic leaders want to redevelop their waterfronts and reconnect the old neighborhoods to the city.

When modern advocates for removing elevated highways cite a model for their own communities, they invariably point to San Francisco, not Boston. In 1991, leaders there decided to tear down the old Embarcadero double-decker roadway after it was damaged in a 1989 earthquake. A ground-level boulevard took its place and spawned redevelopment along the waterfront.

“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 and add more public transit in its place.

DCN News Services

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