Why you should care

Cities can benefit enormously by putting the yucky stuff underground.

Some in Boston call it “highway robbery.” But I dig the Big Dig, and so should you.

Yes, it’s been a go-to punching bag for all that’s wrong with megaprojects, from the unknowns of digging into terra firma — or terra infirma — to the eye-popping cost overruns and delays. Yes, the costs of the Big Dig have been legion. What began as a $2.8 billion project in 1982, with 90 percent to be paid by the feds, clocked in two decades later at $14.8 billion, half of it footed by citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Some calculate the eventual total cost as closer to $22 billion. (A city spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.)

But the benefits have been legion too. The Big Dig took an ugly elevated highway through blighted downtown Boston, put it underground and created green space in its stead. It added an extension to the Mass Pike and a harbor tunnel to the airport. It also built a spectacular, iconic cable-stayed bridge over the Charles River. Some of the technology and engineering for the Big Dig really was eye-popping, like the magic of holding up the old highway with temporary supports while digging underneath.

At points along the way, if people really assessed the costs, they might not have been able to secure the funding.

David Luberoff, Harvard researcher and co-author of Mega-Projects

No wonder it cost a bundle. True, I didn’t have to pay for it, except indirectly as a U.S. taxpayer. But we might be overstating the size of the bundle. Adjusted for inflation, the overruns are much more modest, and had we known the eventual cost, all of that green space and all those efficient connections might never have happened. “At points along the way, if people really assessed the costs, they might not have been able to secure the funding,” says David Luberoff, a Harvard researcher and co-author of Mega-Projects: The Changing Politics of Urban Public Investment .

Anything this complicated will always engender folly. And it’s true that some mega-digs are ridiculous. Seattle had to stop its downtown tunnel-boring project in December 2013 after less than six months and 1,000 feet of progress when Bertha, the gigantic tunneling machine, broke. It was only this past March that Bertha was hauled to the surface, via a separately dug pit, for repair. Laura Newborn, spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Transportation, says the contractor, not taxpayers, is expected to foot the bill for the delays and repairs.

Still, if we’re all going to live and work close together, and we want our surface environment to be clean and quiet — beautiful, even — we might just have to dig. It’s not worth any cost, and it may be impossible to prove Boston’s economic benefits from thriving tourism and downtown business could pay for the Big Dig. Even so, says Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, “very few people would want to go back to the way it was before.”

So I say: Dig, and get on with it.

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