Why the US needs the idealism and ambition of Boston’s Big Dig


GBH’s The Big Dig is launching today, Sept. 27. Find the first two episodes here.

Forty years ago today, Gov. Michael Dukakis held a press conference to announce a radical idea: tear down Boston’s old elevated highway, and replace it with a network of tunnels. That day, Dukakis spoke of restoring neighborhoods, of correcting the mistakes of the past — of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reimagine the heart of a great American city.

It was a hopeful beginning to a long and messy story.

Looking back on that announcement, I am struck by the idealism of the project’s origins, because that was not the Big Dig as I knew it growing up. I came of age in Massachusetts in the late 1990s, when the project was well into construction. And what I remember is the Big Dig of constant delays and cost increases — the Big Dig of scandals, sighs, resignations, investigations. In a word, the “boondoggle.”

So how is it possible that one project can be both those things? How did we get from idealistic vision to cautionary tale? And what can we learn from that journey?

Those are among the questions I explore in a new podcast from GBH News: The Big Dig. 

A scanned photograph shows construction workers on a sweepingly large construction site, with massive ruby-red cranes all around and Boston's buildings in the background.

Boston’s Big Dig was born from idealism.

Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection

Creative Commons

In the ever-churning conversation about the plight of American infrastructure, the Big Dig is often held up as a prime example of everything we get wrong. See, for example, this recent New York Times column by Ezra Klein, or this piece from the Washington Post last year. The project is a symbol of waste, excess, ineptitude, corruption — great fodder for late-night comedy — and yet, I fear that even as the specter of the project is summoned, the Big Dig’s most important lessons are not often talked about. And that we need them now more than ever.

If you look at any optimistic scenario for surviving climate change, it involves building stuff on a totally unprecedented scale: wind turbines and solar farms, transmission lines and mass transit. We’re talking about many Big Digs, year after year, for decades on end. That means we will need the idealism and vision that Dukakis and others had, as well as the persistence that carried their idea forward for decades, from one administration to the next — past local opposition and lawsuits, through the design process, environmental permitting, and even over a presidential veto by Ronald Reagan.

The reality is that the forces that troubled the Big Dig are systemic, which means they are the same forces still acting on all our infrastructure projects today.

But we also have to pay attention to why that vision started to falter, why the narrative turned negative. It would be so easy and simple to say that the Big Dig was undone by one corrupt politician, or by a few greedy contractors. The reality is that the forces that troubled the Big Dig are systemic, which means they are the same forces still acting on all our infrastructure projects today — whether it’s high-speed rail or offshore wind. I won’t attempt to lay them all out here (that’s why we produced a nine-part podcast series), but I would highlight just two.

First is that it’s really hard in this country to build enduring consensus around big infrastructure investments. As Fred Salvucci, the Big Dig’s original champion, likes to say: these projects are conceived under one administration, designed under a second, built under a third and opened under a fourth. Every handoff is perilous, and so time and time again, the process for the Big Dig was warped by the uncertainty of its own future. In interviews for the podcast, I heard how costs were underestimated to maintain political support, leading to sticker shock later. How designs were rushed into construction to secure federal money, leading to on-the-fly changes later. I know that some project leaders would dispute those characterizations, but what seems clear is that uncertainty and precarity were constants, and they took a toll.

The Danish scholar Bent Flyvbjerg co-authored a fascinating (and highly readable) book this year called “How Big Things Get Done,” and one of his core arguments is that successful projects tend to “think slow, act fast.” That means, they take their time during the planning phase, which is relatively cheap, so that they can move quickly during the construction phase, which is much more expensive. That makes good sense when you have the luxury of deciding your own timeline; the Big Dig didn’t always have that luxury. There was always a fiscal deadline looming, or an election, or a change in administration — external pressures that forced the project to do the very opposite: think fast, act slow.

A second factor is that, over the late 20th century, our society has deliberately made it much harder to build things — and for good reason. When the original elevated Central Artery was built in the 1950s, over 20,000 residences and businesses were displaced to carve a path for the highway. The scale of destruction — mostly in poor and working-class communities — is hard to fathom. And there was very little those neighborhoods could do to resist. But over the later decades of the 20th century, that situation changed.

Now, big projects are required to complete environmental impact statements that run thousands of pages long, and citizens have the opportunity to bring lawsuits that delay or ultimately block those projects. I spoke with economist Leah Brooks, who has documented the rising costs of American infrastructure. She argues that this kind of citizen participation is in fact one of the main factors driving that cost increase, especially during the 1970s and ’80s.

The bones of the bridge stand out against the pale blue sky

Zakim Bridge with part of the old elevated highway/train structure.

Courtesy of Leah Weisse


One of the great ironies of the Big Dig is that it is very much a product of this new era. It was an explicit attempt to undo the harms of reckless building, yet the project itself faced constant challenges from various local interests. Some of these challenges were well intentioned and constructive; some were baldly cynical. In one extraordinary example, getting final approval for the design for the Charles River crossing (what we now know as the iconic Zakim Bridge) took nearly a decade of community meetings, review committees and legal disputes. That process delivered benefits, but it also came at an extraordinary cost.

We will need to reckon with these realities in the decades ahead, because they have not gone away. When I spoke with Flyvbjerg for the podcast, I asked him: haven’t we gotten better at building big projects? Haven’t we learned the lessons of the past? His answer: no, we haven’t. And if our most important projects exist in a state of constant precarity, buffeted by politics and beset with legal challenges, they, too, will be over budget and behind schedule, as we heard so often about the Big Dig.

The timing of Dukakis’ announcement of the project, Sept. 27, 1983, was no accident. Because that very week was also ‘last call’ on the entire federal Interstate program. After decades of funding highway projects all over the country, Congress was looking to wind down that era, so they set a deadline: the last week of September 1983. All unbuilt sections of the Interstate had to have a preliminary proposal submitted by that date, or they were out of luck. As Dukakis said in his speech: “This may be the last chance we have.”

A man in a suit and tie smiles for the camera. He's wearing a name tag with a ribbon that reads

Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts in 1974.

Paul Vathis


And they grabbed it — just barely. After getting caught in traffic on the Mass Pike, state officials literally ran the proposal off the highway, handed it off to a second waiting car, and submitted it to the Federal Highway Administration 10 minutes after 5 p.m. on the last workday of the month. So yeah, just barely.

Given that timing, one way to think about the Big Dig is that it is the final major project of the Interstate Era. It marks an end to the most ambitious building program in American history. That era was marred by destruction and excess, but it also represents the last time we had a truly national effort to transform our built environment. There was a plan, there was funding, there was broad political support, and for a few decades at least, it delivered results. Eventually though, that formula began to fray, to break down, and that’s the exact moment in time that the Big Dig story captures.

With any luck, we are on the precipice of our next great era of infrastructure development, one that will also transform our environment, but in ways that make it more just and sustainable. We will need the lessons of that last era. And just like in 1983, there is also a deadline looming: the climate crisis. As Dukakis said, this may be the last chance we have.

New episodes of The Big Dig are released every Wednesday. Find the first two episodes here.

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