Dig They Must, But What About Us?

BOSTON-It takes no small amount of fortitude to get to this city’s Museum of Science from downtown. North Station, across from the Fleet Center, is closed because of convention-related security. And the Science Park stop on the Green line, near the museum, is shut down because of the Big Dig. It didn’t matter. As rain began to fall, I led a small troupe of hardy New Jerseyans-that would be my family-on a long walk though a Big Dig construction zone so that we might check out the museum’s exhibit on … yes, the Big Dig.

I love the Big Dig. I love the idea behind it, I love how it got rammed through Washington, and I love the way it will-and already has-transformed this great city. Now if I were a genuine New Englander and not merely a frequent visitor and long-distance Red Sox fan, I probably would hate the Big Dig. Heck, I don’t live there, and yet even I have stories about getting tied up in Big Dig detours and delays. But then again, I have similar stories about the late and unlamented Artery, which was not so much a highway as it was a gash on this city’s skyline.

If you are predisposed to dislike government-if you are among those who thrilled to hear Ronald Reagan say that government is not the solution, but the problem-the Big Dig probably is among your favorite morality tales. You know the litany: It was supposed to cost a little more than $2 billion, but will wind up costing nearly $15 billion. And you know why the higher cost: corrupt unions doing business with corrupt blood-sucking liberal Democratic machines. See, government is the problem.

There’s another way of looking at the Big Dig, and it would be something like this: Hey, how come Boston gets all the good corruption, and all New York gets is the country’s worst state legislature?

Daniel Patrick Moynihan once told me that the Big Dig was Tip O’Neill’s farewell gift to his constituents. Well, only sort of, but you get the idea. O’Neill, who was Speaker of the House when this audacious plan was hatched on Capitol Hill, actually didn’t think much of the idea at first. In fact, he thought the idea of burying the Artery underground was pretty darn nutty. If nothing else, this should show that liberal Democratic politicians with Gaelic last names do not reflexively put out their hands when presented with ideas about spending large amounts of taxpayer money.

Eventually, though, O’Neill bought into the idea, and so did Edward Kennedy (hey, I know what you’re thinking-but at least Ronald Reagan was against the plan, perhaps because it did not involve overthrowing small, hostile governments south of the equator). Congress overrode Reagan’s funding veto, allowing the Western world’s largest public-works project to break ground in 1991. They’ve been working on it ever since, at one point spending $3 million a day.

Good-government types and anti-government cranks long ago decided that the Big Dig is Boston-speak for “boondoggle.” But one person’s boondoggle is another person’s object of envy. Moynihan tried to arrange for a farewell gift for his constituents in the form of a new rail station that would cost a good deal less than the Big Dig. He put the funding in place before retiring, and then watched as nothing happened.

If, in the eyes of the project’s many critics, the Big Dig is a symbol of government waste or at least inefficiency, then the new Penn Station speaks to the powerful force known as government inertia. By the time the Farley Post Office is finally converted to Moynihan Station, the time line may yet rival that of the Big Dig. That tells you something about the differences between New York and Boston.

Could a Big Dig–like project ever get past the community-board level in New York? It doesn’t seem likely, what with all the advocates for striped bass and so on. You could make an argument that the Brooklyn waterfront could be transformed if the elevated portion of the Gowanus/Brooklyn-Queens Expressway were buried alive, à la Boston’s Artery. But can you imagine such a thing happening, even if Washington offered to foot the bill?

In Ric Burns’ documentary history of New York City, a succession of talking heads accused master builder Robert Moses of perpetrating highways and bridges on an unsuspecting city from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, as if those projects would never have been built were it not for his evil genius. His crime seemed to be that he knew how to get this sort of work done.

Of course, Moses would have hated projects like the long-stalled Second Avenue Subway and the newly stalled Moynihan Station because they involve trains, not cars. Still, a little of his evil genius would come in handy these days.

Dig They Must, But What About Us?