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Nation's costliest highway job is wrapping up.

Byline: Steve LeBlanc

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, leaks in tunnels, 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, Monday 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, named after her sister, 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 1950s-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 P. 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

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 Interstate 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, also were found.

Some delays were unrelated to construction.

The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge - the project's signature element - went through dozens of revisions as designers labored to come up with the most practical and elegant way to cross the Charles River.

The project's darkest day came near the end of construction in 2006 when suspended concrete ceiling panels in a tunnel leading to Logan International 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.

For Salvucci, who warns gridlock 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."

By the numbers

Figures associated with Boston's Big Dig highway project:

Original cost estimate: $2.6 billion

Current cost estimate: $14.798 billion

Length of project: 7.5 miles, about half in tunnels

Amount of dirt removed: 16 million cubic yards

Number of workers at peak construction: 5,000

Number of workers killed: 4

Number of lanes on the old elevated highway: 6

Number of lanes on the new highway system: 8 to 10

Number of historic artifacts excavated from the Big Dig's path: 200,000

Weight of the project's final environmental impact report: 44 pounds

Number of leaks discovered in roof-wall joints in 2004: 2,000 to 3,000

Number of cars using the old elevated highway when it opened in 1959: 75,000 per day

Number of cars expected to use the new underground highway by 2010: 245,000 per day

Average trip through the center of Boston on the old Central Artery: 19.5 minutes

Average trip through the center of Boston using the Big Dig: 2.8 minutes.

Sources: Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, Associated Press news reports

Important dates in history of Boston's Big Dig

Some important dates in the history of Boston's Big Dig highway project:

1982 - Original estimate for the project pegged at $2.6 billion.

1987 - Congress approves initial federal funding.

1991 - Construction begins on Ted Williams Tunnel beneath Boston Harbor.

1995 - Ted Williams Tunnel under Boston Harbor to Logan Airport opens.

1998 - Cost estimate jumps to $10.8 billion.

1999 - Big Dig Chief James J. Kerasiotes step down for failing to disclose cost overruns.

2002 - Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge over the Charles River is completed.

2003 - I-90 connector tunnel and the northbound and southbound lanes of I-93 tunnel open.

2004 - Leak sends water pouring into I-93 tunnel, highlighting ongoing leak problems.

2005 - Investigators find 169 defective panels in I-93 tunnel, most needing minor repairs;

May 2006 - Six men who worked for the Big Dig's largest concrete supplier are arrested on charges they falsified records to hide the inferior quality of concrete.

June - Main Big Dig tunnel dedicated to late House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr.

July 10 - A woman is crushed to death by falling concrete ceiling panels in connector tunnel leading to Ted Williams Tunnel, sparking criminal investigations.

Aug. 5 - Big Dig Chief Matthew J. Amorello forced out in wake of ceiling panel collapse.

Aug. 8, 2007 - Epoxy supplier indicted in connection with ceiling panel collapse.

Dec. 24 - Family of Milena Del Valle announces $6 million settlement with the epoxy supplier for her death.

Dec. 31 - Big Dig comes to an end as an active construction project.

Source: Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and Associated Press news reports

NAME: CENTRAL ARTERY/THIRD HARBOR TUNNEL PROJECT

ART: PHOTOS

CUTLINE: (1) A portion of the elevated Central Artery, also known as Interstate 93, is shown being dismantled. (2) Vehicles enter a portion of the Big Dig Central Artery Tunnel that connects the Massachusetts Turnpike with Logan International Airport.

PHOTOG: (1) 2004 FILE PHOTO (2) THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
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Title Annotation:NEW ENGLAND
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Dec 26, 2007
Words:1388
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