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Boston Looks Forward to End of 'Big Dig'

The city of Boston will be hosting the 2004 Democratic National Convention and city leaders are determined to have the place in order by then. For the last 16 years, Boston's historic district has been one massive construction site, thanks to the largest public works project in American history. It's an eight-lane, underground highway known to locals as The Big Dig. When it's complete, experts say commuters' lives will be a lot easier, and one of America's oldest cities will be more beautiful than it's been in more than 40 years.

By this point, there's an entire generation of Bostonians who don't know what it's like not to have their city's historic district marred by construction. Sixteen years is a long time to be inconvenienced by noise and dust and, perhaps most aggravating of all, detours. And if you talk to most people in Boston, they'll tell you the Big Dig is one big pain in the neck.

But that's because most people aren't engineers like Kirk Elwell, one of the managers of the project. "Oh, it's great. I've been here 11 years, and I have had a chance to be involved with basically every new technique, and old construction technique that you probably have in the world today. We had ground freeze. We've done soil mix. We had a cable-stayed bridge which we're standing under here," he says. "You name it, we've done it. And tunneling of all different types."

That's why the Big Dig is legendary in civil engineering circles. The highway is buried 120 feet underground, coming, sometimes, within just six inches of the foundations of some of Boston's tallest skyscrapers. At various points, an underground rail line runs above the highway tunnel. And above that, up at the surface, is the Central Artery, a six-lane, elevated highway the tunnel will ultimately replace.

The Central Artery carries an estimated 190,000 vehicles a day, and for more than a decade now, engineers have been digging the ground right out from under it. Kirk Elwell says that's one of the Big Dig's more impressive feats. To keep the Central Artery open and safe, engineers had to design a series of stanchions to replace the existing supports, which needed be removed because they were rooted into the ground right where the tunnel was being dug. And then after designing those new stanchions, engineers had to find a way to put them into place while the highway was still open.

We literally lifted up the existing highway," he says. "If you can imagine, the columns that we're getting rid of are down where we're going to excavate. That's where the tunnel's going to be. So sequentially, we went through, and we literally had to jack the highway up. We did it late at night, when there was not a lot of traffic. So they had to take the load, jack it, and then they clamped it. Clamped these columns with these underpinning beams."

The Big Dig was conceived by engineers, city planners, and politicians in the early 1980s. They knew the existing elevated highway through Boston was going to have to be replaced. The road was carrying more than three times the amount of traffic it was designed to carry when it first opened in 1959.

But according to Matthew Amarello, chair of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, officials didn't want to build another, bigger, elevated highway. That's because the Central Artery, as it was built in 1959, basically cut the city in half, isolating neighborhoods from one another and making parts of Boston unusable to pedestrians. "We are taking down that elevated highway that was built in the 1950s," he says. "We are reconnecting neighborhoods. The North End, the Italian-American neighborhood in Boston, is being reconnected to downtown Boston. Chinatown, which was bisected in the 50s, we're providing an opportunity to reconnect it to some of its historic roots in the south area of Boston."

Many historians and sociologists have charted the negative impact highways have had on cities. In fact, Pulitzer-prize winning historian Robert Caro blames the Cross Bronx Expressway for the now infamous socio-economic decline of the Bronx, a borough in New York City. When neighborhoods are isolated, businesses shut down and crime moves in.

But Matthew Amarello says Boston has been handed a unique opportunity to undo the wrongs of the past. When the tunnel is complete, and the elevated highway is removed, landscapers will move in to redesign more than 28 hectares of downtown space into an urban park. "I would daresay that Boston will now become the most beautiful city in the United States," he says. "I would give that title to San Francisco, but I'll take it away once this artery comes down, and Boston is now a beautiful location, with the appropriate downtown, without the scar of what the artery was for so many years, cutting our city in half."

But of course that will not have been accomplished without a price. In addition to all the aggravation Bostonians have been living with since 1987, there's also the reality that by the time it's completed next year, the Big Dig will have cost taxpayers more than $14.5 billion. That's a lot of money to essentially fix a mistake.

But Matthew Amarello says the old highway needed to be expanded to meet the needs of Boston's current population. And if you're going to spend the money to do a project like that, he says, you might as well do it right.