Thursday, April 09, 2009

Not entirely on topic but still...

I agree with this reporter's opinion. As someone who has visited Boston all her life and lived there for 6 years, I don't see the Big Dig in as negative a light as many other people. I also toured the Big Dig site twice before it was opened - absolutely amazing engineering project.

Yes, it was expensive but picture Boston today without it. I don't want to...

Apr 9, 2009

Big Dig and other marvels

Albert B. Southwick

The three most impressive engineering achievements in Massachusetts history are:

No.1. The railroad from Boston through Worcester to Albany, completed in 1842. It opened up New England to trade from the west via the Erie Canal and ensured that this region would not wither on the economic vine.

No.2. The construction of the Quabbin Reservoir and aqueduct, completed in 1937. The 25-mile aqueduct, dug mostly through solid rock, sometimes 600 feet below ground, is the size of a subway tunnel and is a gigantic siphon that daily sucks 600 million gallons of water uphill from the Quabbin Reservoir to the Ware River diversion and then downhill to the Wachusett Reservoir in Clinton from which it is distributed to Greater Boston. It ensures that eastern Massachusetts (and Chicopee) will have enough water for centuries.

No.3. The Big Dig, Despite all the horror stories, it rates as the most complex and brilliant engineering project in Massachusetts history and has turned Boston from a dingy, traffic-clogged nightmare into a modern city with a bright future.

The Big Dig has become a symbol of waste, fraud, runaway costs and tragic blunders, which is too bad. Its long-term benefits vastly outweigh all those negatives. Despite its inexcusable cost overruns, it already is lowering expenses for commuters traveling through Boston by millions of dollars a year and is reducing air pollution by an estimated 14 percent.

In 1995, the Central Artery, an ugly, rusting eyesore, and the two old tunnels to East Boston were carrying 168,000 cars a day. The idea of putting all that traffic underground was daunting. Many of Boston’s building foundations are below sea level. Much of downtown Boston sits on thousands of tons of fill of questionable stability. And its underground is laced with utility lines, sewer pipes, water mains, and subway supports. It seemed hopeless. But Fred Salvucci, then working for the Dukakis administration, was convinced that it could be done, and he proved persuasive. Design planning began in the 1990s.

The actual construction over the years has been done despite staggering difficulties. Thousands of cubic yards of clay, fill and gravel had to be excavated and carted away. Much of the old utility complex underground had to be rebuilt. Meantime, the old Central Artery had to continue carrying its daily load of 100,000-plus vehicles, and the two old tunnels were loaded to safe capacity and beyond. But when it finally opened, it moved Boston into a sparkling new era.

With the help of Holly Sutherland of the Mass Turnpike’s public relations office, I undertook an estimate of what the big project means and will mean to Boston and eastern Massachusetts. In 1995, the Central Artery and the two old tunnels were carrying about 168,000 vehicles daily. By 2005, the Big Dig and the Ted Williams Tunnel were carrying about 207,000. Average speed through Boston had increased from 13 to 36 miles per hour, which meant that the average motorist probably saved a half hour or more and possibly a half gallon of gas. That would add up to 100,000 hours of time and 100,000 gallons of gas saved daily.

One estimate concluded that the new complex, by reducing traffic delays and accidents, saves $500 million a year. In 10 years, that would add up to $5 billion. But that is only part of the story. Had Boston done nothing, according to estimates, traffic on the Central Artery would have ground to a crawl 16 hours a day. Boston’s neighborhoods would have endured a miserable era of traffic strangulation and air pollution.

The quality of life in Boston will be notably improved and has been already. The noisy, ugly barrier that divided Boston is gone. The daily torrent of more than 200,000 vehicles and their pollution has been removed from the city streets. Neighborhoods have been reconnected. More than 260 acres of surface have been reclaimed for park, recreation, memorial and other purposes.

Fred Salvucci, who had so much to do with the idea and launch of the Big Dig, has had no connection with it for years. Wondering what his thoughts were now, I called him at his office at MIT, where he is a research professor of transportation logistics.

He said that he is impressed by some of the brilliant engineering that was done on the Big Dig, but also appalled by some of the fraud and shoddy work, such as what led to a fatal roof collapse of a tunnel entrance. But he has no doubts as to the big project’s long-term value to Boston and eastern Massachusetts.

“Just try to imagine what Boston would be like if nothing had been done,” he remarked.

The Boston to Albany Railroad, the Quabbin Reservoir and Aqueduct, the Big Dig: sometimes it pays off to think big.

Albert B. Southwick’s column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.