Part 5: Hatchet Man vs. the 800 Pound Gorilla
About The Episode
In 1991, the Big Dig is handed off to a new leader – the brash, aggressive, hatchet-toting Jim Kerasiotes – who makes it clear he plans to shake things up. The one thing he can’t shake is the equally aggressive private company managing the project. Now they have to work together.
NARR: By 1991, Fred Salvucci had championed the Big Dig for almost twenty years, and when he finally laid that mantle down, he didn't know who, if anyone, would pick it up next. And he certainly had no idea that it would be an old adversary, someone about as un-Salvucci as you can imagine, who would take that mantle on. A man named Jim Kerasiotes.
NARR: I have to admit, I was a little nervous when I met for the first time with Jim Kerasiotes. Because I had heard the stories about Jim Kerasiotes, and most of them were not flattering.
Martha Bailey: He's a real nasty piece of work as far as I'm concerned.
Peter Howe: Brilliant driven, unfortunately, sadistic.
NARR: If the stories were to be believed, this was a man who ruled the Big Dig by fear and intimidation. A man who prowled the hallways of the transportation building casually firing people, while proudly displaying a hatchet on his desk as a warning to whoever might be next.
Laura Brown: I remember the hatchet,
Peter Howe: I saw the hatchet.
NARR: These stories have been repeated so many times that they feel both unquestionable, and at the same time a little unbelievable. Like mythology.
NARR: But now, here was Jim Kerasiotes, the man, walking into the studio in a gray suit with just a little shine to it, and a stack of binders under one arm. Like a lawyer showing up for court.
Jim Kerasiotes: All right. How are we on sight lines? I feel like that's always a challenge here. Can you see me okay? Yeah.
NARR: But it very quickly became clear that the Kerasiotes I was sitting across from was not going to live up to all the stories I had heard.
Ian Coss: Well, is it okay if we, we jump in and we'll just start from the beginning?
Jim Kerasiotes: However you want to go.
NARR: And that Kerasiotes himself, sees those stories a little differently.
Jim Kerasiotes: I think like anything else, uh, it's in the framing.
NARR: For example: the hatchet.
Jim Kerasiotes: Here's the story of the hatchet.
NARR: Kerasiotes got his start under Governor Ed King -- remember, the airport expansion guy, the arch-rival of Michael Dukakis? That guy. Well, when Kerasiotes joined the King administration, he was sent down to the DPW -- Department of Public Works -- to tell them they needed to make some budget cuts, lay people off.
Jim Kerasiotes: There was a chief engineer, who looked at me and said, you don't understand, Young man. The orchestra leader changes, but the orchestra always stays the same.
NARR: Meaning, politicians like you come and go, but the rank and file bureaucracy do not.
Jim Kerasiotes: And my response to that was you don't understand.
NARR: Kerasiotes forced the DPW leadership out and he made sure the layoffs happened. And with that, his reputation was established.
NARR: Years later, when Kerasiotes was looking to get back into government, he recalls a reporter at the Boston Herald wrote an article, and dubbed him ‘the hatchet man.’
Jim Kerasiotes: The hatchet man is, you know, potentially returning to government.
NARR: And the name stuck – so much so, that an old mentor gave him a gift.
Jim Kerasiotes: A hatchet.
NARR: It was meant as a joke, but the hatchet went in a box with some other gifts, and when Kerasiotes started his new job the box went with him.
Jim Kerasiotes: I show up to the highway department. Um, the box is sitting on the floor, in it is a hatchet, it's like he brought his hatchet.
NARR: Now it's entirely possible that the hatchet could have stayed in the box along with the other gifts. Except...
Jim Kerasiotes: The person who gave it to me, a few months after we took office, had a heart attack and died. so the way that I chose to honor him was to mount that hatchet on a plaque and to hang it on my wall.
Jim Kerasiotes: And I took a lot of shit for it, but, you know, that's fine. Did I relish the reputation? No. but I knew that we had to get moving and I viewed my responsibility as being a disruptor.
NARR: From GBH News this is The Big Dig: a study in American infrastructure. I'm Ian Coss.
Privatization was all the rage in the 1980s and 90s: utilities, roads, railroads, prisons, schools, telecommunications -- all around the world, things that governments once did for themselves, became things that private companies did, for a price. In many ways, the hatchet-toting Jim Kerasiotes was the perfect symbol of this leaner era of government. And once in office, he would wield that hatchet, readily. Yet, very quickly, he also found himself in direct conflict with the very company that he could not do this project without.
This is Part Five: Hatchet Man vs the 800 Pound Gorilla
Pre-RollNARR: When most of the interstate system was built, it was state engineers who designed those roads: public employees, working for the taxpayers. And so through those big decades of highway building -- the 50s and 60s -- the states had robust public works departments, with lots of staff. But in Massachusetts at least, by the 1980s, that mindset and that generation were aging out.
Joe Allegro: When I joined the DPW, the headquarters was over on Nashua Street, which is now the jail that's over there behind Boston Garden.
NARR: Joe Allegro started working for the Department of Public Works in 1984.
Joe Allegro: It was a very old, dated, tired building. And it was definitely, most of the folks were in their sixties and you know, counting time.
Mike Lewis: There wasn't a computer in the building. there was a typing pool,
NARR: Mike Lewis was hired that same year. He recalls sitting down at a seven-foot drafting table with his elder colleagues, and feeling like he had gone back in time.
Mike Lewis: All men white shirts thin ties.
Ian Coss: So it really was, it looked like Mad Men or
Mike Lewis: like Yeah,
Ian Coss: yeah. yeah. Post World War ii. Yep. But this is the 1980s.
Mike Lewis: This was the 1980s.
NARR: It was clear that this DPW would not be designing and managing the most complicated public works project in American history. And so early on, Fred Salvucci made the choice to hire one of the world’s great construction firms, Bechtel Corporation, in partnership with one of the world’s great design firms, Parsons-Brinckerhoff, to manage the whole project. Together, these two companies offered an awesome array of technical expertise. All the public works department had to do was keep them on track.
Fred Salvucci: Not that I studied Buddhist philosophy, but it's sort of a Zen thing.
NARR: Salvucci realized from the beginning that the state was entering into a paradox.
Fred Salvucci: You can't do the project without bechtel passes. You know, they're the ones that have done this stuff so you are where you are, but you know that they know way more than you, so how are you gonna manage them?
Martha Bailey: And we were a very small bunch, who worked for the Public Works department.
NARR: You might remember Martha Bailey from the last episode, she was part of that small team of public employees with the paradoxical task of overseeing the experts.
Martha Bailey: There were maybe 15 or 20 of us, and there were Hundreds of consultants from Parson Springer off and from Bechtel. And they were, particularly the Bechtel people tended to be quite aggressive about what they thought should be done.
NARR: At one point, Salvucci referred to Bechtel as an 800 pound gorilla. It had to be kept in a cage. But after the Dukakis era came to a close and the administration changed over, that cage was looking shakier than ever.
ARCHIVAL: I campaign pretty strong on a platform of downsizing big government in Massachusetts and bringing tax relief…
NARR: The man who replaced Michael Dukakis, was a long shot, partially self-funded Republican candidate named Bill Weld. And if that name sounds familiar, it might be because he was also a longshot partially self-funded Republican candidate for president in 2020. The man who challenged Trump in the primary. But in 1990, Weld won.
ARCHIVAL: Hi, William Weld. Do solemnly swear and affirm, do solemnly swear and affirm that I will faithfully.
NARR: Weld walked in the door with an economy in trouble.
ARCHIVAL: There is widespread talk of Massachusetts as a fiscal Beirut. Its economy adrift, its credit uncertain; its spirit’s lower than its bond rating.
NARR: And so the talk of the day was not about ambitious projects, it was about downsizing, shrinking the government.
Peter Howe: And privatization was like this magical fetishized word in the Weld administration.
NARR: This is former Globe transportation reporter Peter Howe.
Peter Howe: And the more you privatized and the more you cut public sector payrolls, the better.
ARCHIVAL: Can you put a number on your downsizing target? What cuts do you wanna see? What is government doing now that you think government should not be doing?
NARR: In this climate, a guy with a reputation for firing people, a guy like Jim Kerasiotes, was a pretty attractive choice to run a big bureaucracy like the DPW. So Governor Weld tapped him as commissioner, placing the future of the Big Dig in his hands.
Jim Kerasiotes: And the economy being where it was, there was a lot of pressure politically to abandon it.
NARR: It would have been easy for Kerasiotes to just walk away from the Big Dig. This project was not his dream, or his legacy. But you have to understand, Kerasiotes wanted to be a great builder -- his heroes had laid down the highways, expanded the airports -- and now here was this historic project, waiting at his feet. One night in February, just a few weeks after taking office, Kerasiotes took a walk downtown under the old Central Artery, just like Salvucci used to do.
Jim Kerasiotes: And it was really, really cold. And I was looking up at the elevated structure and I started to think about it not being there. It was the point at which I said to myself, this is an opportunity of a lifetime, you know, several lifetimes.
NARR: With a healthy dose of trepidation, Weld and Kerasiotes decided to take on the dream of Dukakis and Salvucci.
NARR: But they were going to do it in their own way.
NARR: As commissioner Kerasiotes led a purge of the department of public works, later renamed the Highway Department.
Jim Kerasiotes: Dukakis had larded the place up.
NARR: His department would be run like a business: lean and mean.
Jim Kerasiotes: Basically we went after management first, and we cut out the fat.
NARR: Kerasiotes took a special interest in the so-called Dukakoids – holdovers from the last administration who might undercut his vision, or even worse: leak to the press.
Jim Kerasiotes: So I, I dug these people out of the bureaucracy one by one. Um, and, not fun because you don't like to do it, but you make the execution very public. So that the next person in line gets the message that, I could be next on that list.
NARR: To be clear, all these people being fired did not necessarily work on the Big Dig itself. But the purge was all part of a larger ethos of management: less is more. Less bureaucracy, less supervision, less thinking at 30,000 feet – more doing.
Ian Coss: You remember your first day walking in the door at the Highway department and sort of what it looked like, what it felt like in there?
Peter Zuk: Well, it was very weighty.
NARR: This is Peter Zuk, who Kerasiotes brought in as his Project Director on the Big Dig. When Zuk walked in that door in 1991, Bechtel-Parsons – the two companies running the project — had already been on the job for six years. And they were waiting for him.
Peter Zuk: My first day on the job was, uh, walking into a room on the fifth floor of, uh, South Station with about 200 people in the room awaiting my arrival. And that was the combined teams of the Mass Highway Department and Bechtel Parsons Brinckerhoff at the time.
Ian Coss: And those people worked for you now?
Peter Zuk: Those people worked for me and relied on me.
NARR: But as Zuk quickly realized, the private consultants -- in particular the Bechtel folks -- didn't entirely see it that way.
Peter Zuk: Their view of the management plan was that they would really run the project and report to this small group of Massachusetts Highway Department personnel.
NARR: Meaning, Zuk could just sit back in his office and wait for the next update from Bechtel -- in other words: we'll call you...
Jim Kerasiotes: They try to make it clear very early that they were in charge.
NARR: And the Bechtel staff were used to being in charge.
Peter Zuk: So, Bechtel, has a history,
ARCHIVAL: This is the story of Hoover Dam, one of America’s seven modern civil engineering wonders.
Peter Zuk: and their history goes back to when they were one of what they called the six companies who built the Hoover Dam between 1931 and 1935.
ARCHIVAL: The thunder of man’s determination to conquer the Colorado…
Peter Zuk: And literally Steve Bechtel, uh, brought his family in a rail car and lived at the Hoover Dam. And if you visit San Francisco, that rail car is out in front of 50 Beale Street.
NARR: From that San Francisco headquarters – Steve Bechtel built a global construction empire that has since passed down to his son, grandson and great-grandson.
ARCHIVAL: In a century of builders, one Builder stands apart
NARR: For it's 100th anniversary, Bechtel produced this video celebrating the company's history
ARCHIVAL: More than 20,000 projects in 140 countries on all seven continents.
NARR: Shots of Bechtel’s megaprojects are mixed in with iconic images from around the world: Red Square, the Sydney Opera House, the pyramids. I think that gives you a little sense of this company's self-image.
ARCHIVAL: Bechtel - Building a century.
NARR: Just consider this: at the same time Bechtel was running the Big Dig, it was also managing construction of the Hong Kong Airport, and what was then the second longest suspension bridge in the world, and the stadiums for the 92 Barcelona Olympics, and a metro system in Athens, all while putting out oil fires in Kuwait following the Gulf War. I mean the Big Dig really was just another project.
Jim Kerasiotes: Now you get the, the guys from San Francisco would come in and they'd blow, smoke up your ass constantly, you know? Tell you how great you were and how they're with you and so on and so forth. But on the ground, the project director was basically trying to tell you how to manage the job, and so there was a lot of conflict.
NARR: Jim Kerasiotes even considered firing Bechtel Parsons-Brinckerhoff, and bringing in a new company that would be easier to control.
Jim Kerasiotes: But I knew that we had to get moving and, I, I concluded that making a change would kill the project.
NARR: I’ve heard many criticisms of Bechtel: that they were overbearing, arrogant; that they didn’t take the Big Dig seriously, that they meddled in local politics. But the critique I hear more than any other, is that they were secretive.
Tom Palmer: It was impossible to get to them, I mean basically it was like covering the CIA, they just didn’t talk.
NARR: Tom Palmer took over the Globe's transportation beat from Peter Howe, and soon learned the Bechtel code of silence. He could talk to the engineers, but no one up the chain.
Tom Palmer: Sometimes the top brass of Bechtel would come to town, but I could never get near them.
Ian Coss: Interesting.
Tom Palmer: Usually they were gone before I'd find out about it.
NARR: In many ways, the pairing of Bechtel and Boston was very odd. Bechtel was a California company, its culture was baked on the Western Frontier, and in the deserts of Saudi Arabia. Now, here it was settling into a dense, crusty old East Coast city, with a ruthless political culture and even more troublesome, a veritable swarm of journalists all looking for the next big scoop. But that uncomfortable marriage between Boston and Bechtel, between the Hatchet Man and the 800 Pound Gorilla, would just have to work.
NARR: In the spring of 1992, construction of the Big Dig tunnels finally began.
ARCHIVAL: Yes, that's what I wanted to see! On April 12th, 263,000 pounds of explosives were detonated at the Subaru Pier in South Boston. Making way for the South Boston entrance to the third Harbor Tunnel.
NARR: The Central Artery tunnel – the one under downtown – was still tied up in environmental review because of the Charles River crossing, so the focus was on the other half of the project: the Harbor Tunnel – the one going to the airport. And basically, everything went smoothly.
ARCHIVAL: Each tube section begins as a flat piece of steel.
NARR: The tunnel was built with what are called immersed tubes. So instead of trying to burrow through all the muck under the harbor, you just build a bunch of watertight steel tubes, float them into place, and sink 'em.
ARCHIVAL: These tunnel tubes now being built at Maryland's Bethlehem Steel Shipyard will arrive one at a time each month for the next 12 months.
NARR: Finally, work was getting done. Jobs were being created.
ARCHIVAL: I'm working and I'm working on a job where I'm getting top rates.
NARR: Journalists could go on tours of the tunnel, and show the public what this project was all about.
ARCHIVAL: The ceiling panels will get lower through the sparkles.
NARR: The harbor tunnel was completed more or less on schedule and on budget -- and to cap off the victory, Governor Weld gave it a name that was guaranteed to please.
Peter Zuk: Boston is a, uh, city of sports, politics and revenge.
NARR: Peter Zuk again -- the state’s project director.
Peter Zuk: I'm not sure whether I like that or not, but, uh, I think it was brilliant on the part of Governor Weld to name the tunnel after Ted Williams.
NARR: Ted Williams: the thumper, the splendid splinter, maybe the greatest hitter of all time, who played his entire history-making career for the Boston Red Sox. The way Zuk sees it, if you have to choose between sports, politics and revenge -- you might as well make this one about sports.
ARCHIVAL: The old splendid splinter of the Red Sox got to ride through his namesake before it was even completed.
NARR: For the opening, a parade of antique cars drove through the tunnel. Bill Weld and Ted Williams led the procession. But Jim Kerasiotes made sure his old boss, Governor Ed King, got a seat right beside his old rival, Mike Dukakis. Now, they were all smiles.
Peter Zuk: There was a certain amount of, uh, joyousness about the, uh, opening the Ted Williams tunnel, which was unfettered by, you know, I shouldn't say unfettered. There was always controversy. There was controversy every day at the project, but it felt like an event that was, uh, everybody was happy.
Ian Coss: Maybe the last time in the project that everyone was happy at once. Uh,
Peter Zuk: There are six phases of a project. Have you heard this yet? you heard?
Ian Coss: No.
Peter Zuk: There’s euphoria, fear, resignation, the search of the guilty, the punishing of the innocent and praise and glory to the uninvolved.
The opening of the Ted Williams tunnel was the first milestone, um, um, we had yet to, uh, experience at that time the search for the guilty and the punishing of the innocent, but it was going to come.
MID-ROLLNARR: The problem with the Ted Williams Tunnel, was that when it was completed, it didn't actually connect to any highways. It didn't connect to the Mass Turnpike, I-90, and it didn't connect to the Central Artery, I-93. It was just a lonely tunnel under the harbor that most drivers couldn’t get to. Perfect for parading antique cars, not so much for catching a flight. And it was actually that connector piece, that link, that would prove to be the most complicated piece of the whole Big Dig: The Fort Point Channel.
ARCHIVAL: The major element keeping the rest of us out of the tunnel is the Fort Point Channel dilemma.
NARR: This is also when the 800lb gorilla in our story -- Bechtel-Parsons Brinckerhoff -- would really climb out of the cage, and get the public's attention. It's our first, but not our last, King Kong moment.
So the Fort Point Channel dilemma really takes us back to the beginning -- that moment when Fred Salvucci got a call out of the blue from his unlikely friend, the road builder, who was standing at that moment in a phone booth, and could see a new path for the harbor tunnel, a path that didn't take a single home. Hopefully this sounds familiar. What I didn't mention before, was that this miraculous path had to cross something called the Fort Point Channel.
Mike Bertoulin: So we'll cross the street up at the, up at the center section and walk down cuz this is a four point channel in front of us
NARR: I got a tour of the channel from Mike Bertoulin, the Bechtel-Parsons engineer in charge of getting the Big Dig across it.
Mike Bertoulin: I'm, I'm, I'm, I'm, I'm a firm believer of, uh, of hands on,
NARR: So when Bertoulin joined the project, he was actually given two options for what to work on: the bridge over the Charles River, or the Fort Point Channel. The river crossing was tempting, I mean it's the flashy iconic thing people see when the project is all done, but he thought: eh, it's just a bridge. But this other thing – this, this looks like a challenge. He chose the channel.
Ian Coss: So, can you gimme just a very basic background on why this channel is here in the first place?
Mike Bertoulin: This used to be a pretty dramatic shipping area.
NARR: Leather, coal, lumber, machinery -- all used to move through here. And because this was such a busy industrial area, the city built a bunch of bridges across the Fort Point Channel.
Mike Bertoulin: This is basically a sliding reticulated bridge.
NARR: In fact, this whole channel is like a little museum of bridges designed to open and close for ships.
Mike Bertoulin: That's a way that bascule.
NARR: A bridge that lifts, a bridge that rotates, a bridge that retracts.
Mike Bertoulin: The Broadway Bridge, which is locked open right now.
NARR: Really, almost every kind of bridge. So early on, when Fred Salvucci settled on this plan of taking the highway across the Fort Point Channel, the obvious solution would be to build another bridge -- just hop over the channel, then dive underground to meet up with the harbor tunnel. Nice idea, but not possible, because the Channel had some very powerful neighbors.
Ian Coss: I've never looked at the post office building from this angle. I did not realize how huge this facility is.
Mike Bertoulin: Oh, it is huge. It, it really is.
NARR: One was the post office, which has a massive mail sorting facility right at the Channel’s edge.
Mike Bertoulin: Here's all the loading docks which go all the way down. It's gotta be like 30 or 40 loading docks.
NARR: Right next to the post office, you then have railroad tracks -- both Amtrak and commuter rail.
Ian Coss: And these trains, I mean like we're looking at a commuter rail train right now. These kept running the whole time?
Mike Bertoulin: The whole time. We never stopped a single one.
NARR: So all that's one side of the channel. But on the other side was an even bigger problem.
Ian Coss: Gillette World Shaving headquarters. Yep.
Ian Coss: This was the thing that you could not touch.
Mike Bertoulin: Yep, exactly.
ARCHIVAL: Look sharp and feel sharp to choose a razor that is built for you. Light and regular and heavy paint...
Peter Howe: Gillette in the late eighties, early nineties was by far the biggest blue collar manufacturing employer in the city of Boston.
NARR: And Gillette did not want a bridge on their property. In fact, they told Fred Salvucci that they'd rather move out of the city altogether, than see that bridge built.
Again, reporter Peter Howe.
Peter Howe: We live in an era in which we've seen so much de-industrialization and seeing that go out of business would've been just unthinkable for Boston.
NARR: So it would have to be a tunnel to get past the Fort Point Channel – but not just any tunnel. Because there were obstacles underground as well -- including an old subway line that ran right beneath the channel.
Peter Howe: Essentially you had to thread many lanes of highway under eight railroad tracks under the four point channel over the red line, not take out the water intake to the Gillette razor factory that employed 3000 people in this incredibly narrowly confined available right away.
NARR: Bertoulin and the other engineers would have to thread the needle, underground.
Ian Coss: how close to this building did the tunnel actually run?
Rebecca Dwyer: The tunnel runs under the building
NARR: I got an unexpected glimpse into the design of this tunnel from someone who lives right next to it -- a painter in fact.
Ian Coss: you said you, you have a few of those paintings could we have a look at those?
Rebecca Dwyer: Yes. Absolutely.
NARR: Becky Dwyer is one of the founders of the 249 A Street Artists Cooperative. It's a big brick industrial building, right next to the Gillette factory. Inside the Co-op, every studio apartment is itself a little work of art, lovingly and customly designed to its occupant's needs. You never know what you'll find when you open a door – could be a bathroom, a darkroom, a closet full of paintings.
Rebecca Dwyer: I'm, I'm not sure I had all of them. Not that, not that,
NARR: Because the edge of the tunnel would actually be under their building, the co-op got to select a liaison – one of their members – who would get a copy of every draft of the design plans. They picked Becky.
Rebecca Dwyer: These are central letter hands.
NARR: And eventually, those plans started to pile up.
Rebecca Dwyer: What I had done was tore up the plans, the early ones, which were useless anyway, Put them on the canvas and then painted over them in some way.
Ian Coss: Could you just describe, um, what we're looking at in one of these?
Rebecca Dwyer: 249 A Street is in here someplace. And this is me trying to rise above it.
NARR: You can see the outline of the channel and the tunnel, lots of hard to read numbers, but then there are big splotches of color creeping in across the map from all sides. As Dwyer describes it, the paintings capture the long emotional arc of the Fort Point Channel -- from curiosity, to fascination, to exhaustion, to exasperation.
Rebecca Dwyer: And this is hell.
NARR: Years of meetings, years of construction.
Rebecca Dwyer: That's how bad it was.
NARR: In one of the paintings, the construction site is haunted by a shadowy figure with glowing red eyes.
Rebecca Dwyer: yes. It's a two-headed, three-headed dog, guarding the gates of hell.
NARR: The problems began with those early design plans, the ones that she shredded up and painted over with the gates of hell. The ones that Mike Bertoulin started working from in 1991.
Mike Bertoulin: So when I came on board in 91, there was a concept out there and was, and had been permitted uh, from environmental assessment, there was gonna be tumorous tubes, then basically there'd be cut and cover connections. That cut and cover is basically when you dig a hole, you support the soil so it doesn't slide into the hole, and you can build the structure, you backfill it and cover it, and you restore the surface.
NARR: That was the plan: two tunnel tubes under the channel, with cut and cover connections on either side. Bertoulin's job was to get that concept all the way to a final design that was ready to build. But in the early 1990s, as contractors started digging around the channel, they realized that the soil was not behaving the way it was supposed to.
Mike Bertoulin: It's known as a, a thicko tropic clay. And because it's been consolidated so long, under itself undisturbed, it could actually take load pretty well. But when you get in there and disturb it, It basically, it loses all its inherent strength, all those little bonding characteristics that it has changed and it becomes very soft.
NARR: Like very soft.
Mike Bertoulin: The consistency of pudding or jello.
NARR: Building cut and cover tunnels of this size through this soil would be a nightmare. And somehow this fact had been missed in all the preliminary designs. Pretty soon, the finger pointing began.
Charlie Sennott: The argument was about did they do enough testing and whose fault was it that they didn't measure the stability of the soil right? And I heard them arguing about this,
NARR: Charlie Sennott was yet another reporter for the Boston Globe – remember what I said about the veritable swarm? And in his words, Sennott was a street reporter. His method was to pound the pavement, talk to as many people as possible, and follow his instincts. Which is how he wound up overhearing this argument about soil testing.
Charlie Sennott: It was like an engineering conference and I was there and reporters do, and I was sitting, you know, at a bar and these engineers were speaking very loudly about something called the 9a contract.
NARR: It sounded like there was trouble in the 9a.
Charlie Sennott: and I needed to figure out what that was. But I just quietly left that night. I didn't ask anyone anything.
NARR: Sennott looked through the list of all the various contracts and quickly found 9a: the Fort Point Channel. There hadn’t been much reporting on this piece of the project, but that was about to change.
Charlie Sennott: And then I booked interviews And I said to some of the key engineers and some of the heads of the project, I wanna talk about the 9A contract. And I watched them go pale.
ARCHIVAL: Testing, this'll be Jim Karasiotis, Tom Palmer, Charlie Sennett, and Peter Zook…
NARR: As the story gained momentum, Sennott was teamed up with his colleague Tom Palmer – who was on the transportation beat.
ARCHIVAL: And it's June 30th. 1994.
NARR: Together, they interviewed Jim Kerasiotes, who by this time had become Secretary of Transportation -- Salvucci's old job. Amazingly, Palmer held onto the tapes all these years.
Charlie Sennott: My other question is what's the control mechanism that keeps people from screwing up?
NARR: That’s Sennott speaking.
Charlie Sennott: Who has to pay if a guy like Beckel does do something that was a stupid design? Is there a penalty for that?
Jim Kerasiotes: They have a liability I mean they They have professional liability.
NARR: And that’s Kerasiotes, arguing that there is oversight in place, that everything is fine, but Sennott keeps pressing him on the larger question: how can we trust this entire process when the line between public and private is so blurred?
Charlie Sennott: If it really shocked me to find out that PA who gave us a great tour getting paid by, how do I know she's gonna, if she's being paid by Bechtel, how can I know that she's gonna be honest with me about what, whether bechtel’s doing a good job.
NARR: And here Kerasiotes, the business man, really delivers his sermon.
Jim Kerasiotes: I mean, what, what, what is, what is so inherently wrong?
Charlie Sennott: It's inherently conflict.
Jim Kerasiotes: No, it's not a conflict. How I, I don't understand what you're talking about. Okay. You know, basically what you have to do is you have to say, either we want to do this or we don't want to do this. Right. Once you decide that you want to do it, you say, Okay, what is the most practical way which to approach it? Okay. Like I would do in my business. Okay, what level of oversight am I gonna employ when I hire a contractor to do a build out in my office space? Right? Very little. All I want to know is, is my office gonna be where I want it to be? Are the walls gonna look like I want them to look, and am I gonna be comfortable when I sit down at it? Right? Okay. Other than that, I don't wanna fucking know about it.
NARR: Kerasiotes is defending Bechtel here, but he’s also defending his management style. He said to me once that he had to choose between two bad options – either he loads the project up with state employees who scrutinize every move, or he steps back and leaves Bechtel to do the job we hired them for. Trust the bureaucrats, or trust the company. For Kerasiotes, the company was the lesser of two evils.
Jim Kerasiotes: Let me tell you when the public gets abused. The public gets abused when too many bureaucrats and too many oversight agencies start taking shots and saying I could do it better, all the experts who don’t have a clue. What we ought to be doing is we all are be saying, This is important, let's get it done.
NARR: Charlie Sennott of course, wanted to know how things were getting done, and if mistakes were being made. The state staff couldn't really answer that question; it wasn't clear if they even knew the answer. It was Bechtel-Parsons that had done those original soil tests and created those original designs, and Bechtel was impenetrable.
Charlie Sennott: like greased glass. I mean, you couldn't get inside Bechtel if you tried
NARR: But there was another way. The soil issue was first identified by an outside contractor that was brought in to help with the design. They didn't work for Bechtel, and soon Sennott found his way to one of their engineers.
Charlie Sennott: And he was saying, look, this was underestimated and it's gonna be more complex than we thought, and it's gonna take longer than we thought. And I remember the breakthrough moment in the reporting when he said, on the record, two years longer.
NARR: Two years...
Charlie Sennott: That is what you call a story, right? So that's a two year delay due to a failure of Bechtel's assessments of the soils that exist in these muddy blue clay that sits there at the bottom of the four point channel.
Ian Coss: Do you remember the day the story ran?
Charlie Sennott: I remember you would be in the newsroom and you could hear the rolls of that would land on the loading docks, and it would land with this incredible like thud. I think of that story as one of those thuds.
ARCHIVAL: Critics accuse Bechtel and Parsons Bri. The engineering firms that are partners with the state on the big dig of inflating the delay and the dollars. The plan was to create a cut and cover through the channel’s inconsistent soil...
NARR: in the summer of 1994, as most of America was tuned into the OJ Simpson case ...in Boston, the Fort Point Channel was big news.
ARCHIVAL: Then Bechtel had second thoughts and decided that the plan literally wouldn't hold water. they speculated that to really get through the channel would take another two years and cost more than 10 times as much.
NARR: Part of the reason this story was so explosive, is that many in the public were just learning about this deal the state had cut with one of the most powerful construction companies on earth. It’s what's called a "cost plus" contract.
ARCHIVAL: The other matter is, of course, it's a cost plus contract.
NARR: Meaning that Bechtel-Parsons was not getting paid a flat fee -- they were basically being paid by the hour. The longer the project took, the more money they made.
ARCHIVAL: Bechtel also assumed the role of management consultant, technically making them the overseer of their own work.
NARR: But maybe more important, was the fact that it was Bechtel/Parsons' engineers that both created those preliminary designs and then signed off on those designs.
ARCHIVAL: This has made a few critics wince when assessing the contractual arrangement here.
NARR: Finally, you had the famous Bechtel secrecy at play. According to Charlie Sennott's reporting, Bechtel-Parsons knew about the issues in the Fort Point Channel for a year and a half, without saying anything to the state staff.
ARCHIVAL: The Bechtel Parsons team, it should be noted, was gonna make a lot of money no matter what the plan.
Ian Coss: Did someone drop the ball in there? Should the soil conditions have been tested more thoroughly or deeply? Or like, how did that error happen?
Mike Bertoulin: You, you, you, you're bringing up the word error. I, I don't perceive it as an error. As an error at all. It's basically, not everything from an early assumption always pans out in the end of being the way, the early assumption was.
NARR: Mike Bertoulin, the Bechtel-Parsons engineer who welcomed the challenge of the channel, sees the story very differently: this is just how the design process works.
Mike Bertoulin: Then you basically, as a good engineer, sit back and say, okay, you know, that's not the way to go.
NARR: In fact, by the time the public was just learning about the Fort Point Channel dilemma, Bertoulin and his team had already pivoted. These soil problems were old news to them.
Mike Bertoulin: So we said we need, we need to change the concept. Let's, instead of fighting the conditions that's there, let's challenge it and build it differently.
NARR: But even as Bechtel-Parsons went back to the drawing board, the venture's relationship with the state was fraying further. And it all came to a head one September morning in 1994.
ARCHIVAL: The Central Artery Project has, uh, come under increased, uh, scrutiny and debate and, uh, public attention, uh, over the summer.
NARR: It was just a month after all this news about the Channel came out, and Jim Kerasiotes was invited to give a speech to a breakfast event of local business leaders.
ARCHIVAL: State Secretary of Transportation, James Kerasiotes.
NARR: Kerasiotes had a simple mission: to reassure his audience.
ARCHIVAL: The message this morning is, the project is going well.
NARR: And though he did acknowledge the recent reporting on Fort Point Channel,
ARCHIVAL: Last month was a report in one of the papers
NARR: He quickly downplayed the problem. He didn't blame Bechtel, or anyone for that matter. He, like Bertoulin was focused on finding a solution, and making sure that solution would not affect the schedule would not affect the cost.
ARCHIVAL: The bottom line of this discussion is this, as far as the cost of this project is concerned, we understand that we can't incur additional costs.
NARR: But as he spoke those words -- whether intentionally or not -- he was also issuing an ultimatum to Bechtel-Parsons: no more surprises. And they heard him loud and clear.
ARCHIVAL: This project is a great success and I wanna thank you very much.
NARR: Moments, just moments, after that speech, Tom Palmer the Globe reporter went up to a staff person from Bechtel who was in the room -- their top person in Boston. Palmer asked: so, do you agree with Kerasiotes? Can you promise no more cost increases? The Bechtel rep, in characteristic fashion, did not make a big statement, but he did say quote: "These by definition are very very unpredictable numbers, and you just don't know."
Jim Kerasiotes: He stepped in a pile of shit he shouldn’t have stepped in.
NARR: When Kerasiotes heard the quote, he was furious.
Jim Kerasiotes: You know, stop the bullshit and, and stop telling me what you think I want to hear. And then going to tell Tom Palmer at the Boston Globe, you know, and can't, we can't commit to that. You know, you're gonna commit to that or you're gonna go.
NARR: I feel like the deal Kerasiotes offered the public was that he would be our bully. If bureaucrats didn’t get stuff done, he would fire them; if politicians or journalists took shots at the project, he would shoot back. So even though Kerasiotes had often defended Bechtel publicly, when they pushed him too far, he went into bully mode. He couldn't exactly fire a Bechtel employee, but Kerasiotes took the most drastic step he could: he dismissed the man from the project -- sent him packing.
Jim Kerasiotes: Which created a shit storm in San Francisco.
NARR: With the whole partnership between Bechtel and the state suddenly in turmoil, Gary Bechtel himself, great grandson of the company’s founder, flew to Boston to meet with the governor – Bill Weld.
Jim Kerasiotes: And, um, basically tell the governor to replace me.
NARR: The two men met alone, for three hours. They talked politics, they talked about the project, and according to Kerasiotes, Weld told Bechtel that he was sticking with his man.
Jim Kerasiotes: Basically told him, Hey, listen, you know, he, thanks for coming by. You work for Jim.
NARR: Bechtel backed down, and quietly replaced the man who had dared to contradict Kerasiotes. Once again, the relationship between the state and the company held.
NARR: The way I see it, there are two main ways that people tell the story of the Big Dig. There’s the scandal and drama version, which generally occupied the front page of the papers. Then, there’s the engineering marvel version – the ‘look what we did’ version – which was always part of the media coverage, but usually tucked deeper in the paper. I want to make a little space for that perspective here, because really – it is a marvel what they did.
So in the end, the team led by Mike Bertoulin made three big changes in their approach to the Fort Point Channel -- each of which was historic in its scale for American engineering.
Mike Bertoulin: So we doing something called deep soil mixing.
NARR: First, some of the project staff went to Japan to study techniques for using giant mixing bits to strengthen the soil.
Mike Bertoulin: They would auger down 120 foot plus. And as they went down slowly, they would also inject cement grout and basically the material which had the consistency of, three day old jello would basically be turned into something more like a, a very hard sandstone.
NARR: Hard enough to actually dig through, without the soil constantly caving in.
Mike Bertoulin: That technology worked really well until we got close to the railroad tracks. We hit all kinds of obstructions and we ended up solving that problem with soil freezing.
NARR: This was the second big change: they froze the ground solid. This is truly wild. It took a refrigeration unit big enough to cool the Empire State Building in July, running for several months straight, to make this happen. It worked by sending a liquid brine chilled to minus 30 degrees, through pipes running 60 feet under the ground. Once that muddy clay had all turned to ice, they could dig out a highway-sized tunnel just five feet below the railroad tracks. Five feet. And like Bertoulin said before, the trains never stopped running.
But the final change, and really the crowning achievement for Bertoulin, was in the banks of the Channel itself.
Mike Bertoulin: and the idea was, let's not fight the water, let's use water to move things around.
NARR: Basically, they would build this tunnel just like the harbor tunnel -- float the sections into place and then push them into that soft soil surrounding the channel. The difference was that these tunnel sections could not be built down in Maryland somewhere, because they were too big to float through the channel past all those antique bridges. They would have to be built on site, next to the channel itself, in what's called a casting basin. Basically a big dry dock, like what they use to build ships.
Ian Coss: How big was that casting basin?
Mike Bertoulin: It would hold an aircraft carrier. It's roughly a thousand foot long and, uh, roughly 300 foot wide.
NARR: Gillette gave the project temporary use of its parking lot, which is where they dug out the casting basin. But there were rules.
Mike Bertoulin: They would remind us that their tolerances of their razor blades are in angstroms,
NARR: That's one hundred-millionth of a centimeter.
Mike Bertoulin: Much, much, thinner than a, um, a human hair.
NARR: That meant: no vibrations, no dust. They had to dig a pit big enough to hold an aircraft carrier, without shaking the factory right next door.
Mike Bertoulin: And that is what we ended up building.
Rebecca Dwyer: I watched the whole thing. What did it look like? It looked impressive .
NARR: From her painting studio, Becky Dwyer could look right down into the casting basin basin itself. For years, the basin was a hive of activity: trucks, workers, equipment, debris.
Rebecca Dwyer: I did do a series that was interesting. I'll show you one Sure. And then I'll let you go.
NARR: Then when the tunnel sections were built, they flooded the basin. All the steel and concrete were hidden, and the water came practically up to her front door.
Rebecca Dwyer: This... Um, I got up in the middle of the night. There's two of these, but I'll show you this one. And the flood was up next to the building. And the moon was shiny. It was like a full moon and if you looked at the ceiling, you could see the water and the moon. It was unbelievable. So I had to make a painting of that. Hmm.
NARR: There were no three-headed dogs or gates of hell in that painting, just ripples of water and light.
The tunnel tubes made their journey by cover of darkness, creeping out of the basin like giant submarines. It took nine hours for them to cross into the channel, pulled by diesel-powered winches. The water was glassy and calm, and just as the sun rose, the tubes touched down in their final resting place -- within 3/8th of an inch of what the designs called for.
NARR: To me, the Fort Point Channel captures the paradox of privatization. This project required the very best engineering minds that money could possibly buy -- people with rare expertise, years of experience. So how can a little state highway department possibly know if those experts had messed up along the way? Or if it could have been done more cheaply? Or if the people running the company really did have the public interest at heart? Boston reporters hammered these questions over and over during the Big Dig, but there were rarely clear or satisfying answers. Paradoxes are not meant to be resolved, at best they are managed, more often they're tolerated. We had to accept that our public works project was disappearing inside a black box, guided by its own motives, and we may never know what actually went on in there.
NARR: Today, it takes all of about ten seconds to cross the Fort Point Channel. You barely notice the dip and rise as you thread the needle along the most expensive piece of highway in America.
Ian: So we're standing right on top of the tunnel right now.
Engineer: And as you can see right here...
Above ground there isn't much to see either. There's a small access stairway right next to the artist co-op that seems to just emerge out of the sidewalk.
Engineer: If we stop and stare, we might be able to see the tops of the tubes right here.
NARR: And at low tide, if you look down in the channel and the water is calm, you might just glimpse the tops of the tunnel tubes. The channel's failures and its triumphs are mostly hidden.
NARR: But there is one secret that had to come out eventually. And it is in many ways the secret that came to define the whole narrative of the Big Dig: its price tag.
ARCHIVAL: Well, you look the people in the eye tonight and tell us whether you think the 7.7 billion figure is realistic for the project as is now on the books.
NARR: That's next time.
NARR: The show is produced by Isabel Hibbard and myself, Ian Coss. It’s edited by Lacy Roberts. The editorial supervisor is Stephanie Leydon with support of this episode from Sam Dieringer (DARE-in-JIR). Mei Lei is the project manager, and the Executive Producer is Devin Maverick Robins.
Special thanks to Tom Palmer, who probably put in more hours and years covering the Big Dig than any other single reporter in this town. Tom has been generous enough to share not only his insights, but also original audio and video from his reporting.
The other archival sound in this episode comes from GBH News. And you can see some of that material - including shots of Boston’s old elevated highway and the Fort Point Channel - at GBH News-dot-org.
The artwork is by Matt Welch. Our closing song is “ETA” by Damon and Naomi.
The Big Dig is a production of GBH News and distributed by PRX.