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So Rail Transit's a Boondoggle? No, it's a CAR TUNNEL

Introduction by Dave Dobbs

It's always worth reminding ourselves who really wastes the public's money. The following story in the 'Dallas Morning News' (below) makes clear what interests truly control the government (at least when it comes to transportation spending).

Every time you hear a transit critic tell you urban rail and its high expense are a boondoggle, just tell him about "The Big Dig." No, that's not the Panama Canal, it's the new tunnel for cars and other motor vehicles in Boston!

The thirteen BILLION six hundred MILLION dollars estimated to complete this monster could build an extensive rail and bus system in each of six largest cities of Texas all at once, complete with bikeways and pedestrian facilities to feed it. Folks, what this has bought is a pathetic 7.5 miles of road in a tunnel under Boston! This kind of money spent on the Boston "T" would have made it the premier transit system in North America and one of the finest on the planet, but it's being spent on a ROAD!

Read and learn.


TWO CITIES, TWO APPROACHES

Driven to excess While FW's tunnel project was vetoed back in the '80s, Boston's scandal-plagued underground endeavor has become the 'Big Dig'

Dallas Morning News 05/30/2000

By Christine MacDonald / The Dallas Morning News

BOSTON - in the mid-1980s, Boston and Fort Worth courted federal highway administrators with similar proposals: Both wanted to demolish hulking elevated highways that cut through busy business districts and replace them with tunnels.

Boston and Fort Worth lobbied Congress for the money to tunnel segments of interstates through downtown. Boston won the funding; Fort Worth devised a cheaper alternative. Here is a look at the two projects:

Fort Worth

The mixmaster: Construction of a new interstate 30/interstate 35W interchange, including rerouting 2.5 miles of I-30.

Estimated cost: $167 million . Groundbreaking: 1993. Completion: 2004

Boston

The Big Dig: Construction of 7.5 miles of roads, bridges and tunnels routing interstates 93 and 90 through downtown and under Boston Harbor.

Estimated cost: $13.6 billion . Groundbreaking: 1991. Completion: 2004

SOURCES: Central Artery/Tunnel Project; Texas Department of Transportation

Quickly rebuffed by federal funders, Fort Worth opted to reroute 2.5 miles of interstate 30 as part of a massive rebuilding of the interchange known as the mixmaster. The I-30 portion of the $167 million project, which was funded primarily with federal dollars, is expected to open by early next year.

But Boston, backed by powerful House Speaker Tip O'Neill, won money for the underground proposal and embarked on the Central Artery/Tunnel Project, which has become known simply as the "Big Dig." The scandal-plagued construction endeavor has become the most expensive public works project in the nation's history, at an estimated $13.6 billion.

Officials say the Big Dig will be more costly than the Panama Canal, the Alaska Pipeline or the Hoover Dam, if those investments were adjusted for inflation. It was projected to cost $5.8 billion when ground was broken in 1991. But the scope was expanded to 7.5 miles of new roads, bridges and tunnels, including stretches that pass under Boston Harbor.

Additional costs were incurred as engineers devised ways to safely drill through landfill, unstable soil and old infrastructure. The first phase, an underwater tunnel linking the center of the city with the airport, opened two years ago. When the project is completed, the city will have one of the nation's most modern highway networks that even critics call an engineering marvel.

While Bostonians have grumbled about the giant excavation for a decade, the criticism shifted to Washington this year when federal auditors accused state managers of intentionally concealing cost hikes. They said the breach in disclosure requirements was "the most flagrant" in the federal highway program's history. Washington lawmakers threatened to freeze federal funds if Massachusetts officials didn't fix the financial problems.

This month, Gov. Paul Cellucci signed a $2.4 billion Big Dig bailout bill, virtually guaranteeing that Massachusetts drivers will pay the lion's share for the project's estimated $1.9 billion cost overrun.

The federal government had earmarked $8.5 billion for the project, a figure supplemented by a portion of Massachusetts' annual federal highway funds.

"We don't want any more federal money," said Big Dig's new chief, Andrew Natsios, who twice voted against the project while serving as a state representative. He said that because the project is 60 percent finished, it's too late to turn back.

"The question of whether we should have started it in the first place is academic. We can't just leave a giant hole in the middle of Boston," he said.

A well-connected Republican, Mr. Natsios said he has flown to Washington every Friday since he took control of the project a month ago to lobby for continued federal support. Besides meeting privately with disgruntled lawmakers, he has testified before the powerful Senate Commerce Committee.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, the committee chairman, said it would be necessary to put a cap on the project's federal funding. However, the committee took no action.

The dirt on the dig

The funding controversy is the latest episode in the Big Dig's colorful history.

The project was conceived in the 1970s to replace the rusted green-metal elevated Central Artery that cuts off downtown from the waterfront. Officials began courting Congress for funding a few years later.

An early opponent was Ray Barnhart, federal highway administrator under President Ronald Reagan and a former Texas Department of Transportation official.

Mr. Barnhart had also opposed Fort Worth's plan to submerge I-30, despite lobbying by city politicians and business leaders.

Unlike in Massachusetts, where the congressional delegation backed the Big Dig, Texas politicians such as Jim Wright, the Fort Worth Democrat who succeeded Mr. O'Neill as House speaker, never fought for the submerged highway, Mr. Barnhart said.

He said city representatives shelved the idea, and the state never formally submitted the project to federal overseers.

"I don't recall that Jim was ever involved. He never twisted my arm, though others tried," Mr. Barnhart said.

But he gave in on the Boston project, saying that Massachusetts officials met his terms for structuring the financial package. "There was no 'quid pro quo' put on me. I think my record will attest to that," Mr. Barnhart said.

Political insiders say that Mr. O'Neill, the late Democrat from Cambridge, used his clout to hold up other transportation projects around the country until he won support for the Big Dig.

"Barnhart had a hard time saying yes to Tip O'Neill and Ted Kennedy when he had said no to his good friends in Fort Worth," said Fred Salvucci, a former Massachusetts transportation secretary who crafted the original project.

By the time the funding package came up for a vote, Mr. O'Neill had retired and Mr. Wright had replaced him as speaker. Charles Manning, a Republican consultant in Boston, said the project is often referred to as "Tip's Tunnel."

"Everybody saw this as the big favor for Tip, and let's take care of it for him," Mr. Manning said.

Congress approved the project as part of 1987 public works legislation. Mr. Reagan vetoed the bill, mentioning the Big Dig as one reason. Yet Congress overrode the veto.

"I'm sick of being called the father of that thing," said Mr. Barnhart, who now works as a consultant in Austin. "That is federal charity that won't quit. It was quite an extravagant project."

Eyes on project manager

Critics in Boston and Washington, however, blame the funding debacle on controversial former project manager James Kerasiotes.

A gubernatorial appointee, Mr. Kerasiotes was considered something of a gladiator on Massachusetts' cutthroat political scene. He was quoted as bragging that the governor feared him and called one Cellucci aide "a reptile" and another "a moron."

As early as 1995, state officials and independent watchdog groups had warned that the project had plunged off fiscal course. But Mr. Kerasiotes vigorously disputed the charges.

He took the project with him when he left the post of state transportation secretary and became the director of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, another political appointment with less rigorous disclosure rules than the transportation department.

Late last year, he allowed state finance officials to file a bond issue that made no mention of mounting cost overruns, though he later acknowledged that he had known about the problem for months. Until Feb. 1, when he made the unexpected announcement, Mr. Kerasiotes had vowed there would be no overrun.

Federal auditors concluded in a March 31 report that Mr. Kerasiotes' team did not disclose "significant cost information," which allowed the team to keep news of the overrun from federal authorities.

Since then, the Securities and Exchange Commission has begun investigating whether Massachusetts officials misled investors by not mentioning the Big Dig's financial woes.

Until Mr. Cellucci fired him last month, Mr. Kerasiotes' confrontational style had kept his questioners at bay.

"Jim was enough of a wild man that there was no assurance he wasn't going to burn down the castle on the way out the door," said one political insider, speaking only on condition of anonymity.

Since his fall from grace, Mr. Kerasiotes has dropped out of sight and could not be reached for comment. His critics have come out of the woodwork.

"I was in a war with him ... until this thing came out," said Mr.

Natsios, who claims partial credit for forcing Mr. Kerasiotes to reveal the overrun.

Given the controversy, Mr. Natsios might envy Fort Worth's project, especially the nearly completed rerouted segment of I-30. But, he said, that approach just would not work in an old, densely populated seaport like Boston.

"The only way we could have done that," said Mr. Natsios, "was to put it [the highway] in the middle of Boston Harbor."

Each city's project is expected to be finished in 2004.

Christine MacDonald is a free-lance writer based in Boston.

Light Rail Progress Rev. 00/08/25

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