Back when I started at TBM: Tunnel Business Magazine in 1998, the big story within the tunneling industry in North America was of course Boston’s Central Artery/Tunnel project, aka the Big Dig. Still one of the biggest, if not the biggest, tunneling related project completed in North America, the Big Dig really was a marvel of technology at the time and is still referenced today – perhaps most notably the jacked box tunnel through frozen ground that was installed under live commuter tracks and tunneling under an underpinned subway deep below South Station, and many, many others.
The largest section of the program was the replacement of the elevated I-93 highway through the heart of downtown and the construction of the tunnel below within the same alignment. All of this major construction was completed without the artery being taken out of service. The complexity of keeping the artery open while the tunnel was constructed simultaneously was equated to performing open-heart surgery without dist
urbing the patient.
The Big Dig has been criticized for its cost overruns and is still looked upon by some as an example of a project gone wrong. Now, however, Boston residents are realizing the improvements, including the new Zakim Bridge over the Charles River in the north of town and an improved I-90/I-93 interchange and new tunnel to Logan Airport in the south. A trip from the airport to downtown that used to take upwards of 90 minutes can be done in 10.
More importantly, the Big Dig resulted in a project that led to an improvement in the quality of life for city residents, as well as increased productivity and commercial opportunities. As a result of the project, South Boston is being redeveloped into a vibrant commercial and residential neighborhood.
I got the chance to the visit Boston briefly in May, and had the opportunity to venture along the old viaduct route. What I saw was a sweeping boulevard of green space filled with pedestrians and open-air shops mingling with the existing buildings and businesses breathing new life. No one seemed to protest the vast improvement to the city resulting from the removal of the viaduct. (Similarly, I think that people in San Francisco don’t have nostalgia for the viaduct that ran along the Embarcadero either.)
Now that the project has been built, does anyone want to give it back? My guess is not now and certainly not 100 years when the project is still paying dividends.
So I pose the question, is the Big Dig a success? I think the Big Dig represents what a project should be – something that benefits the public for the long haul. And on that count, I see it as a success.
With that said, there is a project 3,000 miles away in Seattle that is drawing media attention and criticism. Hopefully the negativity is premature. Crews are completing repairs to the TBM and are on track to resume mining in the coming months. Let’s hope that it results in a success story in the end.