The Magazine

Bad Days for Big Dig

But a good opportunity for Governor Mitt Romney.

Aug 14, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 45 • By SHAWN MACOMBER
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IN 2003, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony supposedly signaling the end of the "Big Dig"--the nearly two-decade-long project to ease Boston traffic by routing the city's major thoroughfares underground and underwater via a series of tunnels--Massachusetts Turnpike Authority (MTA) chairman Matthew Amorello, the project's supervisor, insisted that the Dig rivaled "anything in the history of the world built by men."

Maybe. It's no doubt true that the largest public works project in the nation's history has grown corpulent on federal largesse, soaring from an estimated price tag of $2.2 billion in 1983 to somewhere near $15 billion today. And $15 billion hasn't yet bought a tunnel system free from hundreds of leaks (including a monster 300-gallon-per-minute gusher), falling debris, collapsing walls, and rampant fraud--ranging from the delivery of some 5,000 truckloads of degraded concrete to tunnel construction sites to the Boston Herald's recent revelation that construction workers "used duct tape to temporarily secure bolts now coming loose."

It gets worse. On the evening of July 10, as 38-year-old newlywed Milena Del Valle drove with her husband through the I-90 Connector tunnel--one of the Dig's major routes--on their way to Logan airport to meet a relative, twelve tons of concrete fell from the tunnel's ceiling, crushing the Del Valles' Honda and killing Milena instantly. After years of hammering away at Big Dig ineptitude, Republican governor Mitt Romney now seems imbued with a bit of Churchillian prescience (though perhaps on a less grand scale). Meanwhile, Romney's opponents have run for cover as the purported lame duck, with a mere five months left in office, promises action in the form of a "stem to stern safety audit," the objective of which, he insists, is not to "cast blame."

Perhaps more important, Romney's success--or failure--in bringing order to the Big Dig has implications far beyond Boston. In his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, Romney touted his shepherding of the scandal-ridden Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games from near-disaster to great success, a story he recounts in his 2004 book Turnaround. The question facing Romney now is whether a similar "turnaround" of the Big Dig--or at least the beginning of one, considering the scope of the problem--could become the key to his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.

Romney dismisses any partisan talk. "This is about engineering, not politics," he said in an interview last week. His case is bolstered by the fact that his primary adversary thus far has been MTA chairman Amorello--a fellow Republican. Still, there is a political side to Romney's new role in the Dig, and so far it seems to be to the governor's advantage.

Perhaps realizing this, his opponents are on the attack. In a recent press release, Massachusetts Democratic party chairman Philip Johnston derided the "incompetence" of the Romney administration, calling it "mind-boggling." The release went on to say that Romney's "performance last week [responding to the Big Dig crisis] was great theater but obviously lacking in substance." Meantime, Massachusetts Democratic congressman Michael Capuano told the Boston Globe, "If by next week we don't see the outlines of the 'stem to stern' review, we can question whether we'll ever get one"--as if Democrats have ever shown the will to rein in "Tip's Tunnel," one of the Dig's nicknames (after former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, another Massachusetts Democrat and one of the project's most vocal champions).

There is the danger--and, in some quarters, the hope--that Romney's getting involved with the Dig might damage his nascent presidential campaign. A recent Boston Phoenix headline pondered: "Mitt's Katrina: Could the Big Dig collapse doom Romney's presidential dreams?" And political consultant Dick Morris went so far as to tell the Boston Herald that Romney should have kept the Big Dig "at arm's length," because the governor "is now going to be held responsible for every delay, every cost overrun, and every construction defect."

Such sentiments, however, do not reflect the reality on the ground. The Big Dig's reputation precedes it in an exceedingly negative way. Few here will assign Romney blame for a mess two decades in the making. Instead, after years of inaction, people see Romney on television nearly every day, articulating step-by-step solutions, taking responsibility for their implementation in press conference after press conference, describing in detail the issues at hand, showcasing an almost bizarrely detailed understanding of engineering minutiae, and even drawing diagrams on the fly.