Boston’s costly Big Dig ready to draw to a close

BOSTON — When the clock runs out on 2007, Boston will quietly mark the end of one of the most tumultuous eras in the city’s history: The Big Dig, the nation’s most complex and costliest highway project, will officially come to an end.

Don’t expect any champagne toasts.

After a history marked by engineering triumphs, tunnel leaks, epic traffic jams, last year’s death of a motorist crushed by falling concrete panels and a price tag that soared from $2.6 billion to a staggering $14.8 billion, there’s little appetite for celebration.

Civil and criminal cases stemming from the July 2006 tunnel ceiling collapse continue, though on Monday the family of Milena Del Valle announced a $6 million settlement with Powers Fasteners, the company that manufactured the epoxy blamed by investigators for the accident. Lawsuits are pending against other Big Dig contractors, and Powers Fasteners still faces a manslaughter indictment.

Officially, Dec. 31 marks the end of the joint venture that teamed megaproject contractor Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff with the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority to build the dizzying array of underground highways, bridges, ramps and a new tunnel under Boston Harbor — all while the city remained open for business.

The project was so complex it’s been likened to performing open heart surgery on a patient while the patient is wide awake.

Some didn’t know if they’d live to see it end.

Enza Merola had a front row seat on the Big Dig from the front window of her pastry shop — stacked neatly with tiramisu, sfogliatelle and brightly colored Italian cookies — in Boston’s North End.

During the toughest days of the project, the facade of Marie’s Pastry Shop was obscured from view. The only way customers could find the front door was along a treacherous path through heavy construction.

“For a while we thought we weren’t going to make it,” Merola said. “But you know, we hung in there.”

The Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel Project — as the Big Dig is officially known — has its roots in the construction of the hulking 1950’s-era elevated Central Artery that cut a swath through the center of Boston, lopping off the waterfront from downtown and casting a shadow over some of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.

Almost as soon as the ribbon was cut on the elevated highway in 1959, many were already wishing it away.

One was Frederick Salvucci, a city kid for whom the demolition of the old Central Artery became a lifelong quest.

“It was always a beautiful city, but it had this ugly scar through it,” said Salvucci, state transportation secretary during the project’s planning stages.

Rather than build a new elevated highway, Salvucci and others pushed a far more radical solution — burying it.

Easier said than done.

Those who built the Big Dig would have to undertake the massive highway project in the cramped confines of Boston’s narrow, winding streets, some dating to pre-Colonial days.

Of all the project’s Rubik’s Cube-like engineering challenges, none was more daunting than the first — how to build a wider tunnel directly underneath a narrower existing elevated highway while preventing the overhead highway from collapsing.

To solve the problem, engineers created horizontal braces as wide as the new tunnel, then cut away the elevated highway’s original metal struts and gently lowered them onto the braces — even as cars crawled along overhead, their drivers oblivious to the work below.

It was the just one of what would be referred to as the Big Dig’s “engineering marvels.”

The Big Dig’s long history is also littered with wrong turns — some unavoidable, others self-inflicted.

One of the biggest occurred in 2004 when water started pouring through a wall of the recently opened I-93 tunnel under downtown Boston. An investigation found the leak was caused by the failure to clear debris that became caught in the concrete in the wall during construction. Hundreds of smaller drips, most near the ceiling, were also found.

Some delays were unrelated to construction. The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge went through dozens of revisions as designers labored to come up with the most practical and elegant way to cross the Charles River.

But the project’s darkest day came near the end of construction in 2006, when suspended concrete ceiling panels in a tunnel leading to Logan Airport collapsed, crushing a car and killing Del Valle, 39, a passenger in the vehicle driven by her husband.

The tunnel was shut down for months as each of the remaining panels was inspected and a new fastening system installed. A federal investigation blamed the use of the wrong kind of epoxy and the Massachusetts attorney general indicted the epoxy manufacturer.

Four workers also were killed working on the project. During peak construction, more than 5,000 workers labored daily on the project.

The project’s escalating budget also became an unwanted part of its legacy.

In 2000, former Big Dig head James Kerasiotes resigned after failing to disclose $1.4 billion in overruns. A frustrated Congress capped the federal contribution.

“It never should have taken so long. It never should have been so expensive,” said former Gov. Michael Dukakis.

For those who grew up with the noise and clutter of the old Central Artery, the transformation of downtown Boston is still a wonder to behold.

The darkened parking lots under the old elevated highway have been replaced by parks, dubbed the Rose Kennedy Fitzgerald Greenway after the mother of Sen. Edward Kennedy, who grew up in the North End. Buildings that once turned their backs to the old Central Artery are finding ways to open their doors to the parkway.

Mayor Thomas Menino, who presided over the city during most of the construction, said that for the first time in half a century, residents can walk from City Hall to the waterfront without trudging under a major highway.

“When I came into office in 1993, people said your city isn’t going to survive,” he said. “Now we have a beautiful open space in the heart of the city. It knits the downtown with the waterfront. All those dire predictions by the experts didn’t come true.”

Drivers also give the Big Dig a big thumbs up.

A study by the Turnpike Authority found the Big Dig cut the average trip through Boston from 19.5 minutes to 2.8 minutes.

“Before we drive bumper to bumper, but now they are moving very well,” said Gamal Ahmed, 38, who has been driving a cab in Boston for seven years. “Sometimes we are stuck, but not like before.”

For Salvucci, who warns traffic congestion could soon return without a major commitment to public transportation, the Big Dig — for all its whiz-bang engineering — was always second to the city itself.

“The Big Dig is not a highway with an incidental city adjacent to it. It is a living city that happens to have some major highway infrastructure within it and that highway infrastructure had to be rebuilt,” he said. “This was not elective surgery. It had to be done.”

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