Boston’s Big Dig is legendary — for its politics, cost overruns and rage-inducing traffic snarls. But most Bostonians don’t remember that the project emerged from an anti-highway movement that was resisting the nation’s newfound love of interstates. Discover more tidbits about this megaproject with Ian Coss, lead producer and host of “The Big Dig,” a new podcast from GBH Newsand PRX.
What piqued your interest in The Big Dig?
I grew up in western Massachusetts hearing about this project going on in Boston called The Big Dig. Most of the things I heard were bad — it was expensive, slow and corrupt. Fast forward, I now live in the Boston area, and I experience the fruits of that project — The Rose Kennedy Greenway, the Zakim Bridge, easy trips to the airport. So there was a bit of a disconnect there. This thing that seemed so controversial at the time was clearly transformational for the city. It's kind of hard to imagine the city without it now.
What makes this story interesting for people who didn’t live through the megaproject?
It's a fascinating snapshot of American public works over the last half century. It captures the end of the interstate era and what that meant politically. It follows the rise of the environmental movement and citizen activism and how that changed the way we build. We see the Reagan Era, with a focus on small government and privatization. This one project really captures a much bigger history.
What makes the story relevant now?
I can’t think of a better case study to help us understand how we build infrastructure today – why it's so difficult and why it's so expensive. For many decades, I think the environmental movement was focused on not building things and conserving neighborhoods and landscapes the way they are. But when you look at both the climate crisis and the housing crisis, these are crises of construction in many ways. There's just no two ways about it — to transform our energy system and provide affordable housing, we're going to have to build a lot of stuff faster than we ever have before.
What did you learn while doing this project?
Working on this project taught me to be very wary of simplistic narratives. It's really easy to look at The Big Dig, which started at $2 billion dollars and turned into a $15 billion project, and say: ‘somebody stole all the money and it's totally corrupt.’ But it's not that simple. The way that happens to a project is really complicated and interesting. It's not all about nefarious, dirty politicians or greedy contractors. Similarly, it’s easy to say, ‘Look at this engineering marvel that transformed the city.’ That narrative too is incomplete and simplistic. There's a dose of modesty and humbleness that we can all take from that.
Do you feel hopeful or pessimistic about the prospect of the U.S. doing big projects in the future?
This story highlights just how many challenges there are and how big the obstacles are that we’ll have to face as a society to build ambitious projects. But on the other hand, despite the controversy, flaws and cost, this was a radical, visionary, transformative idea that got championed and passed along for decades — and it happened. I take inspiration from that.
Coss is an award-winning podcast creator and a founding member of PRX Productions. His original series "Forever is a Long Time" was named one of the best podcasts of 2021 by The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Financial Times and Apple Podcasts. He was previously the lead producer for DETOURS, a podcast hosted by GBH’s Adam Monahan, a longtime producer with ANTIQUES ROADSHOW.