BOSTON As Washington prepares to replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct with a deep-bore tunnel, many are hoping it will not be a repeat of Boston s infamous Big Dig, a megaproject that finished years late and way over budget.
For Boston, the goal was to tear down a giant elevated highway known as the Artery that separated the heart of the city from its waterfront.
It was pretty hideous, Boston resident Adrienne Supino said of the highway.
On top of that, the Artery was crumbling and created numerous traffic headaches.
It was lose-lose: ugly as sin and not very functional, said Fred Salvucci, who served as Massachusetts secretary of transportation in the 1980s and pushed hard to get rid of the elevated highway.
To many in Seattle, the Artery had a lot in common with the Viaduct.
But Boston s solution was far more complex than the Viaduct replacement. Massachusetts built three new tunnels and one of the widest cable-stayed bridges in the world. The initial budget approved by Congress was $2.6 billion, with the federal government agreeing to pick up 90 percent of the tab.
Massachusetts worked hard to keep the city open for business while digging the tunnels.
It was kind-of a mad science project for all of us, said Richard Dimino, who is president and CEO of A Better City, which used to be called the Artery Business Committee, an organization that helped nearby businesses get through the Big Dig.
People were worried that during the peak construction period that we were going to be a ghost town, Dimino said. And it was quite the opposite.
But keeping the city open came with a hefty price tag, greatly increasing the project s cost. On top of rerouting traffic through the massive construction zone, engineers had to relocate utilities buried along the entire highway route.
We have 350 years worth of utilities, from wooden water pipes up to sewer pipes that you can drive a bus through, said Bob Albee, who was deputy project director when the Big Dig started. It was a huge, huge effort.
The utility relocation took about five years and ended up costing around $1 billion, Albee said.
They also spent large sums of money performing environmental tests on the huge amounts of dirt that were dug up. Plus, they had to deal with historical remnants tucked below Boston s surface.
Many of those obstacles occurred in the first 20 to 30 feet below the surface, something Washington hopes to largely avoid digging a deep-bore tunnel. Geologically speaking, that was not an option in Boston.
We would ve avoided a whole lot of the impacts that really shook up people the most, Albee said.
Congress approved many of the project s cost increases over the years, but eventually, the feds decided to cap the funding, forcing the state to pick up the difference.
In everybody s mind, particularly in the press, that always equals waste, fraud and abuse period, Albee said. Blood is in the water, and if it bleeds, it leads.
Albee insists it was always going to cost more than $2.6 billion. The more they learned as the project went along, the more it was going to cost, he said.
On top of that, environmental regulations changed, forcing them to change some of their initial plans, Albee said.
Planners also added new elements to the project, increasing the cost, Salvucci said.
Plus, no one accounted for inflation when the project s budget was initially approved.
When it was all said and done, the project cost nearly $15 billion and took years longer than originally planned, which frustrated taxpayers.
The biggest thing that stands out in everyone s mind is the overruns and the cost, said Boston resident Pam Bennett. It was very, very expensive.
Then in 2006, a woman was killed when a concrete ceiling panel in the tunnel collapsed, prompting many to question the project s safety.
For Maria Merola, who owns a pastry shop in Boston s North End neighborhood, the Big Dig has been a big headache. She much preferred life in the shadow of the giant Artery.
I like the business that I had before, she said, insisting that she lost many of her regular customers during the project.
But with time, public perceptions of the Big Dig are starting to change.
In terms of driving through Boston, it s fabulous, said resident Mark Simcox.
Along with new tunnels down below, which make it much easier for drivers to get to Boston Logan International Airport, the city got a series of new parks, stretching for 1.5 miles directly above the new roadway. It s called the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.
I love it, said Boston resident Adrienne Supino, who frequently walks on the greenway. All of the parks along here are really nice, especially in the summertime.
It s so much better than it used to be with this ugly highway going through here, Simcox said.
The young parks are slowly maturing, but to many, they offer a hint of what can happen to Seattle s waterfront once the Viaduct is gone.
And for those who initially envisioned this outcome in Boston about 30 years ago, the final product is what they think people in Seattle need to focus on.
You have to remember why you re doing the project, Salvucci said.
It s always important to remind people of the prize, Dimino said.
Keep your eye on the prize, Albee said. It s just having a vision for what you want your city to be. And I m certain you folks have that in Seattle. And then sticking to that vision and clawing your way right to the end to get it.
The Washington Department of Transportation has closely studied the Big Dig to see what lessons can be learned. Deputy Secretary David Dye feels Massachusetts tried too hard to make everyone happy all of the time, and that made it hard to keep the budget on track.
Thursday night on KING 5 News at 11 p.m., we ll take a closer look at how Washington is trying to learn from the Big Dig s mistakes.