Part 3: All Politics is Local
About The Episode
The Big Dig needs federal funding. House Speaker Tip O’Neill is determined to get it; President Ronald Reagan is determined to stop it – setting up a final showdown in one of the great political rivalries of the 20th century.
NARR: If you drive through the Big Dig today and you look up just as the road dives underground – you’ll see a name in big white letters over the tunnel entrance. But the name is not Fred Salvucci, and it’s not Michael Dukakis. The name is Thomas P O’Neill Jr., a man known better as Tip O’Neill.
ARCHIVAL: I know you came here to see man. That's about the third, most powerful man in the United States. Maybe the second. The man who is representing us so well, Mr. Speaker Tip O'Neil.
NARR: Tip O'Neill was a bear of a man, with bright white hair and a bulbous nose. And his whole career, he operated by the simple motto that he made famous: "All politics is local."
ARCHIVAL: I wish everybody would sit down. I feel so uncomfortable.
Alice Wolf: Tip O'Neil was bigger than life.
NARR: Alice Wolf is the former mayor of Cambridge, which made up part of O'Neill's congressional district.
Alice Wolf: He had an event, a hotel in Cambridge, and I remember going in there and he would know every single person that was in the event.
ARCHIVAL: Mary Zabarelli! My God, Mary! How are you?
Alice Wolf: And he'd say: “How's your aunt, Molly? How is your daughter doing now in school?” And this was his capacity.
ARCHIVAL: Hello darling, come over here, the Regio I love. Thank you… from my grandfather all the way down.
Tom O'Neill: It was the power of his personality.
NARR: This is Tip O'Neill's son, Tom O'Neill the Third.
Tom O'Neill: And his chief of staff, Leo Deal, once said to somebody, you haven't lived till you've met Tip O'Neill. And there was magic in that, because he was right.
MUSIC: Fade into archival audio.
ARCHIVAL: Singing with instrument playing
NARR: In 1983, Tip O'Neill had been in Congress for three decades, and he had risen to its highest post: Speaker of the House of Representatives. In the paralyzed politics of today, that job can seem kind of thankless – just a bunch of arm twisting and cat herding. But the Speaker is powerful: and Tip was not just any speaker. He held the gavel for ten years straight – that’s an all-time record by the way – and he used it to great effect. Very little could happen in that chamber without his support.
So when Fred Salvucci got back into state government and started pushing for this new combined project – to tear down the elevated Central Artery, rebuild it underground and build a new tunnel over to the airport – he knew he would need O'Neill's help, and that it might not be easy to get.
Ian Coss: So what was it like when you brought this idea to Tip O'Neill. What do you think?
Fred Salvucci: Oh, it was, there's a meeting convened in his office.
Brian Donnelly: Fred came in and he put out the map of the project all across this enormous desk of the speakers office.
NARR: Congressman Brian Donnelly was in the meeting too. Like O’Neill, he also represented parts of Greater Boston.
Brian Donnelly: And I remember to this day, Tip leaning over. And he had a cigar, yeah, and the ashes kept falling, ashes kept falling onto the map. I thought the map was gonna go up in flames. I was standing back there saying, Holy mackerel, Tip's gonna burn the whole thing down. And he was only interested in one thing, East Boston. He kept pointing to Fred and said, show me East Boston.
NARR: This is because O'Neill's district included East Boston and he knew just how controversial the Harbor Tunnel had been.
Brian Donnelly: Tip was deathly afraid of the politics of East Boston. He said, I want an absolute guarantee that the people of East Boston are for this. If they're not for this, Fred, you can come in here a thousand times. It ain't ever gonna happen as long as I'm a speaker.
NARR: So Salvucci made his case for why this tunnel was different.
Fred Salvucci: Here's physically why it's different. Here is politically why it's different.
NARR: Basically, everything we covered in the last episode.
NARR: The Speaker himself didn't immediately respond. He liked to sit back and let everyone else in the room speak first. And so a third local Congressman, an ally of Tip's, turned to Salvucci.
Fred Salvucci: And, uh said, Okay, Fred, we'll go with this. But if he and he points to the speaker, he says, if he gets one angry phone call out of East Boston, you are dead.
NARR: With that, the pointed finger turned towards Salvucci, and took the shape of a pistol.
Fred Salvucci: It was like, Okay, I get it.
NARR: From GBH News, this is The Big Dig: a study in American infrastructure. I’m Ian Coss.
Infrastructure is one of those political issues that in theory is supposed to be bi-partisan. But in practice, it’s not. Obama proposed a big infrastructure package; it went nowhere. Trump proposed a big infrastructure package; it went nowhere. Yes, Biden did get his bill through, but just barely, and with only a few dozen Republicans on board. And yet all those recent infrastructure battles pale in comparison to the one that unfolded during the mid-1980s. This was at a time when bipartisanship was much more common – especially when it came to highway funding – which made the whole episode that much more extraordinary. The leader in the White House was Ronald Reagan. The leader in Congress was Tip O’Neill. The issue between them was the Big Dig.
This is Part Three: "All Politics Is Local."
Pre-RollNARR: The Interstate System was built by the gas tax -- about four cents a gallon for many years, collected on every gallon of gas pumped at every gas station in the country. This was the big innovation of the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act: the money. We're talking about billions and billions of dollars of gas taxes, funneled in a special trust fund, which in turn was paid out to the states. There had never been federal infrastructure spending like this in America. And for many years, it was the single largest source of money that the states got from Washington -- just a huge bonanza. But the party was never supposed to last forever. By the early 1980s, the Interstate Era was winding down. Most of the roads were built, and Fred Salvucci found himself facing a very tight deadline.
Fred Salvucci: If the Xerox machine gets stuck, we're dead. I mean, there's, there's no wiggle room.
NARR: Congress had decided that 1983, the year Salvucci got back in office, was last call on all federally-funded interstate projects.For reference, the deadline for proposals was just three days after the big speech Governor Michael Dukakis gave at the end of the last episode – when he publicly endorsed the project for the first time. So yeah, no wiggle room.
Ian Coss: Do you remember just how close to the deadline it came when you finished it?
Matt Coogan: Do you wanna know the truth or not know the truth?
NARR: Matt Coogan was Salvucci's Undersecretary of Transportation.
Ian Coss: I'll take the truth and nothing but the truth.
Matt Coogan: What happened was that the book was printed, and I hope I can get away with this now, but the book was printed in Waltham.
NARR: Which should be just about a 25 minute drive from the Federal Transportation building in Cambridge.
Matt Coogan: And there was a fire on the turnpike, and the turnpike was closed.
NARR: The car with the book of plans was stuck: it couldn’t get through, and it couldn’t get off the highway.
Matt Coogan: You know, there were something called mobile phones in cars. And they were like as big as a brick. So the staff knew exactly where the book was and I didn't. I had the pleasure of waiting at Federal Highway till it arrived.
Ian Coss: oh, so you're standing on the sidewalk at Federal Highway, looking at your wrist watch, tapping your foot.
Matt Coogan: I remember the day I was inside with these very nice professional folks and they said, you know, it's five minutes late. And I said, no, that, that couldn't possibly be.
NARR: Meanwhile, word had gotten out via the new-fangled mobile phone, and a second car was dispatched to get the book from the people in the first car.
Matt Coogan: And they ran it off the highway, and the second car drove it to Federal Highway Administration and, maybe missed the deadline, but 10 minutes.
NARR: Thanks to a small – and as far as I can tell, never before reported act of grace – the tardiness was overlooked and that book-sized proposal was accepted.
Fred Salvucci: When we got the thing in it was wow, nobody thought we could do it. It's done. Isn't this great? Everyone's on board and, uh, Federal Highway always takes time to process and review the record.
NARR: The Federal Highway Administration they keep referring to is like the guardian of the highway trust fund -- the people who decide which projects get the money.
Fred Salvucci: And they took a long time.
NARR: At some point, Salvucci started to suspect that something was amiss. It should not be taking this long, and he had a theory why.
Fred Salvucci: There was a Federal Highway administrator who was a Reagan loyalist. He wanted to croak us.
NARR: Reagan’s man at Federal Highway was named Ray Barnhart. Barnhart had come to the job from Texas, or as Salvucci likes to say, he pretended he was from Texas, even though he was born in Illinois. The two men had met once before in Boston, when Barnhart came to give a speech.
Fred Salvucci: And he said, Ladies, gentlemen, and others. I say others because any state that would send to Washington as their elected representatives, the likes of Ted Kennedy and Tip O', must have a lot of others in the room. And it was like, there was a gro, it was like, this guy is a, a high federal official. And he, he was just out to kill us.
NARR: Barnhart’s view was: after all the highway projects Massachusetts had canceled – like the ones from our first episode – why should he now give them any money for this new one. He said, quote: “coming from Texas, my first inclination was to let the bastards freeze in the dark.” There would be no love for the Central Artery from the Reagan White House.
NARR: This is when Tip O'Neill comes into the picture, and Tip had some experience squaring off with Ronald Reagan.
ARCHIVAL: Mr. Speaker, the president of the United States.
NARR: Every year, Reagan would come over to Tip's house and give his State of the Union. Reagan would joke later that he could actually hear Tip, sitting right behind him, plotting out loud his own plans.
ARCHIVAL: As I made each proposal, I could hear Tip whispering to George Bush, forget it. No way. Fat chance.
NARR: As Speaker of the House, O'Neill was the most powerful Democrat in the country.
ARCHIVAL: The gentleman from Massachusetts, the distinguished speaker, Mr. O'Neill,
NARR: And he was an old school New Deal liberal Democrat – I mean a true believer in the moral obligation of government to serve the most vulnerable.
ARCHIVAL: When the president of the United States presented his economic package to the Congress, he sent a challenge.
NARR: Now, here he was presiding in the era of Neoliberalism, privatization, Reaganomics.
ARCHIVAL: The thousands are cuts in this. Which one are you gonna pick out? You're gonna choose food against education. You're gonna cut highways against defense.
NARR: So this is not a simple rivalry or clash of personalities we’re talking about, this was a tectonic shift in American politics embodied in these two old Irishmen. The way Tip saw it, he was Horatius standing at the Bridge into Rome, alone against the hoards with his sword and shield: the last line of defense for the social programs that he had spent his entire career building up, and that Reagan was all too ready to cut down.
ARCHIVAL: They worked in my opinion in the best interest of America. Thank you Jim.
NARR: Tip had also become the public face of Reagan’s opposition, and not really by choice. In the 1980s, Republicans ran attack ads featuring a white-haired, overweight actor in a striped suit. It was unmistakably meant to be Tip O’Neill.
ARCHIVAL: Congressman, I think we're running out of gas. Oh no, it's not as if the Democrat Congress didn't have a warning.
NARR: We see this actor-Tip driving carelessly down the road until the car finally stalls out.
ARCHIVAL: Hey, we're out of gas. The Democrats are out of gas. Vote Republican.
NARR: Tip was the foil, the heel, the boogeyman for the Reagan Revolution, which created a problem when it came to the Central Artery.
Brian Donnelly: If Tip defended the project, it became a national issue.
NARR: Again, Congressman Brian Donnelly.
Brian Donnelly: So all the tip haters would be sending in letters and raising money. And here's this big liberal Democrat stealing all the taxpayers money.
NARR: So instead of making a big scene on the floor of the House, O'Neill exercised a more subtle kind of power. This is a man who was known as a cunning political operator, a man who, when he became Speaker, passed over twenty rules changes in the first hour, just to solidify his grip on the chamber. So Tip knew where all the levers were, and exactly when to pull them. In this case, that lever was something called the Interstate Cost Estimate.
ARCHIVAL: At the heart of the controversy, it’s something called the interstate cost estimate, or ICE
NARR: Every two years, Federal Highway had to come up with an estimate of what they thought it would cost to complete the rest of the system.
ARCHIVAL: Congress then has to approve that estimate and approve the Federal Highway administration's recommendation for dispersing that money.
NARR: The next cost estimate was due in 1984. Usually these were pretty routine bills that didn't create a lot of drama. But that year, the chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, Jim Howard, insisted that funding for the Central Artery had to be included. And the bill stalled.
ARCHIVAL: If Congress doesn't decide on a new interstate cost estimate by the time it recesses in February, more than a thousand projects nationwide could be delayed.
NARR: I want to emphasize that this fellow Jim Howard was NOT from Massachusetts. The Central Artery did not serve his constituents in Central New Jersey. But…one of the Speaker’s many powers is making committee appointments, and Howard was a hand-picked, loyal ally.
Brian Donnelly: Yeah, he could have abandoned us at any time, because, don't forget, there were other members that had projects that was important to them, as this was to Massachusetts. So they were pestering him, saying, this bridge is gonna fall down. This needs to be fixed. But he had given his word to the speaker, and come hell or high water, he wasn't going to break his word.
NARR: No Central Artery funding, no highway bill. Even though Tip O'Neill was careful to keep his distance from the issue, it was still clear where the pressure was coming from. So around this time the project got perhaps its first nickname: “Tip's Tunnel.”
Chip DeWitt: So the project has become now somewhat notorious in all the state highway places, cuz they're all wanting to get their money.
NARR: Chip DeWitt was Fred Salvucci's point person on DC politics. And he was starting to feel pressure not just from other states, but from Tip O’Neill’s staff too.
Chip DeWitt: and they said, look, you've gotta work something out because we can't keep holding this money up.
NARR: But of course, 1984 was also an election year… famously not a great time to work things out.
ARCHIVAL: It's wonderful to be in Boston.
NARR: When Reagan made his campaign stop in Boston he was met with jeers, and protesters upset with his policies. So the relationship between Reagan and the Bay State was …let’s just say, uneasy.
ARCHIVAL: We say fight back, Reagan says cut back! We say fight back, Reagan says cut back!
NARR: What Massachusetts needed was an intermediary, someone who could broker a truce. What they needed really, was a Republican, and Chip DeWitt found just the person -- a high-powered Boston lawyer named Roger Moore… not to be confused with the actor who played James Bond, even though this Roger Moore was also a very dapper man.
Chip DeWitt: Roger comes in and he's wearing a classic Edwardian outfit, a dark blue suit with a vest and a fob and chain and a straw bowler hat.
Ian Coss: Wow.
Chip DeWitt: And here's Fred with his non leather belt with the buckle on the side. And it was a little bit like oil and water.
Ian Coss: Fred was not a slick dresser.
Chip DeWitt: No, Fred was not a slick dresser. And Fred was very reluctant to have Roger involved. He didn't know him, he didn't trust him.
NARR: But he soon realized just how valuable Roger could be.
Fred Salvucci: He was a personal friend of Ray Barnhart.
NARR: Roger Moore knew Ray Barnhart, the Texas transplant at Federal Highway – the very man they needed to get to. So Roger joined the team.
Chip DeWitt: I'll never forget one day Roger tells me, I’m gonna try to figure out what makes Barnhardt tick.
Ian Coss: Hmm.
Chip DeWitt: And he said, I'm, I'm gonna go fishing with Barnhardt. I, I think it was like Montana, somewhere out west.
NARR: What Roger Moore learned on that fishing trip, was that despite all the bluster and stonewalling, Barnhart was eager to let Congress get on with a new highway bill, and ready to settle the whole dispute over Tip’s Tunnel.
Chip DeWitt: So what Roger asked Barnhart to do is put down in writing the things you know, that the administration has problems with, and we'll try to address those. So sure enough, about a month later we get this, uh, memo that says there are three problems with the project.
NARR: The first two were pretty minor, technical things. They could settle those quickly.
Chip DeWitt: And then they said that the central artery is too expensive.
NARR: Too expensive.
Chip DeWitt: So it's not cost effective.
NARR: On this last issue, the slick-dressing Roger Moore was able to strike a clever deal by exploiting the alliance at the heart of the whole project, between the artery and the harbor tunnel. The context here is that pretty much from the beginning, Federal Highway officials had been skeptical of rebuilding the Central Artery underground.
Fred Salvucci: Their expression was, this isn't a highway. This is an urban beautification scheme.
NARR: Which was true, I mean it would make the city more beautiful to replace that elevated highway with acres of open space…and it would make for a better highway. But that argument did not always land.
Fred Salvucci: It was like, if, if it's not destructive, it's not ours. It was, it's a weird mentality.
NARR: At the same time, Federal Highway had always been supportive of the Third Harbor Tunnel. It was clearly not an urban beautification project, it was a straightforward expansion of the interstate system that also happened to complete the longest interstate in that system, I-90, by finally connecting it to the Boston airport. It was one of those lingering gaps on the map that Federal Highway was really looking to fill in. So the deal they made was this: if the state could prove that the Artery was just as cost effective as the Harbor Tunnel, the whole combined project could go forward.
Matt Coogan: And it ended up with me and two guys from Federal Highway locked in a room.
NARR: Salvucci’s undersecretary Matt Coogan and these two federal officials were given about three months to do a complete cost/benefit analysis.
Matt Coogan: They literally said, throw out the forecast you have, we're gonna do this together.
NARR: They started crunching numbers -- traffic predictions, tunnel capacity, average speeds -- with Coogan signing off on every calculation. During those three months, Coogan's father died, he had to travel back and forth to Vermont to take care of his mom, and arrange a funeral. But the process couldn't stop, too much was riding on it.
Matt Coogan: And those were some of the, I don't even like thinking about it, some of those painful weeks of my life because, not only was our project in limbo, but the entire national highway industry, and there was just this general belief that if a pile of numbers came out wrong, there'd be a stalemate for years more.
NARR: The irony of this whole cost/benefit exercise was that for Salvucci and Coogan, depressing the Artery was never really about highway capacity and traffic flow. It was about restoring their city. Matt Coogan lived in the North End of Boston, he had to walk under the elevated Artery every day to get to work. He had two kids who were breathing exhaust from the almost 200,000 cars a day that crept along one of the most congested highways in America. But those costs and benefits were never part of the equation.
ARCHIVAL: Traffic sound
Matt Coogan: And if you want to have a discussion of, of destruction of beautiful cities, we could have it. But I never once went to Washington and said, I want our city to be more beautiful. That's not what I sold for, for 10 years.
NARR: Finally, the two federal officials emerged from that little room with a result. The numbers were all crunched, and they were not good.
NARR: Ideally, if you're doing any kind of cost/benefit analysis, you want the ratio to be more than 1, right? You're getting out more than you're putting in. Well from just a traffic standpoint, the cost/benefit ratio of the Artery was point three -- for every dollar of cost you get 30 cents of benefit. However, the cost/benefit ratio of the harbor tunnel was also not good. In fact, it was exactly the same: point three. The two projects were equally un-cost effective – and that was the bar they had to clear. Reagan’s highway guy, the would-be Texan, he honored his word, and gave the project a lukewarm but important blessing. He didn’t say he would support its journey through Congress, but he did say that he probably wouldn’t oppose it.
Chip DeWitt: And that was a big statement. He said that to all the staff people who in the room, because it was a change, it was a big change from what they were hearing from the top.
NARR: Interestingly, Barhnart chose not to relay that same message up the chain of command. And when word made it to the top -- the White House that is -- that Tip's Tunnel was back on the table, the Reagan administration made it clear that the fight was not over yet. Not by a long shot.
Mid-RollNARR: When Fred Salvucci's first child was born, he wanted to name her Roseann Louise Carmine Lucia Maria Salvucci. The family priest said it was too long, so they dropped the three middle names, at least for the time being. Thirteen years later when Roseann Louise was confirmed, Salvucci encouraged her to add Carmine and Lucia as confirmation names. And ten years after that when she got married, he persuaded her to add Maria back in as well. As Salvucci's friends have put it: "It took him 23 years to get the name he wanted for his daughter. But he got it."
NARR: The quest for Artery funding would require of Salvucci that same kind of patience and persistence.
Brian Donnelly: I'll never forget, it was Christmas Eve and it was about four o'clock and my secretary buzzed. And she said, you won’t believe who was out here? I said, who? She said, Fred Salvucci. He was relentless.
Chip DeWitt: I used to joke with people that Fred would take his brain out of his head and put it in a little machine and it would keep working while he was sleeping, cause he was working on it 24 hours a day.
NARR: There was no big highway bill in 1984, no big highway bill in 1985, and no big highway bill in 1986. Congress was still deadlocked over Boston’s Central Artery as well as some other issues, and only managed to pass a very basic funding extension to keep existing projects from running out of money. It was starting to feel like, whenever this next highway bill did pass, it would be the last one – the end of the Interstate Era. To guarantee the Artery’s future, it had to be in there.
NARR: For Salvucci and the project’s supporters, this was money the state was entitled to. Massachusetts had passed all the tests, met all the deadlines; we had paid our gas taxes like everyone else and now it was time to get our share. But with every passing year, the state found itself more politically isolated, because the interstate system was more done.
Fred Salvucci: And as more and more states completed, you are left with a small number of stragglers, Massachusetts being the biggest straggler, so the other 49 states, like what do they care?
NARR: On top of that Massachausetts was about to lose its most powerful weapon…
ARCHIVAL: Entertainment tonight will not be seen because of the following special program, a tribute to Tip.
NARR: 1986 was Tip O'Neill’s final year in congress.
ARCHIVAL: And right now, Massachusetts Democrats are beginning an evening of tribute to House speaker Thomas P Tip O'Neal, who's retiring after 34 years in Congress…
Chip DeWitt: So Mr. O'Neill has finished up as speaker and he calls all the members into his office.
NARR: As Chip DeWitt recalls, Senator Ted Kennedy was there. So was John Kerry, Brian Donnelly, and of course, O’Neill’s old friend Jim Howard, who still chaired the House Transportation Committee.
Chip DeWitt: And he calls Howard to come over. And he says, I want you to take care of this. And he, Howard says, absolutely, I'll take care of it. And then it became a point of pride for Mr. Howard.
Ian Coss: Hmm.
Chip DeWitt: He was gonna do this for Mr. O'Neill.
ARCHIVAL: this is the 100th Congress of the United States, …
NARR: In January of 1987, the second bill introduced in Congress was the Highway Bill. This was it: the last best chance to fund the Central Artery Project.
ARCHIVAL: 1500 needed highway projects in all of our states. Await the speedy of completion of this bill to put some …
Ian Coss: I was wondering, just for some kind of big picture background, how did highway bills work before this one? You know, if we go back to the sixties and the seventies, what were these reauthorization bills usually like?
Chip DeWitt: Oh, they were usually passed 99 to one in the Senate and, you know, maybe three or four votes anti in the house. I mean, they were always bipartisan popular bills.
Ian Coss: Right. So what changed in the 80s. Why did it become partisan?
Chip DeWitt: Well, there was an attempt to paint the Democrats as big spenders.
ARCHIVAL: To begin with, you might have noticed that lately there's been a little trouble with the way the big spenders in Congress have been handling the budget.
Chip DeWitt: And of course Tip O'Neal was the perfect example of that in their mind, you know, that's what they were trying to say.
ARCHIVAL: Legislation like the 88 billion boondoggle of a highway bill sort of gives me a case of heartburn.
NARR: So when the House introduced their Highway Bill, Reagan immediately threatened to veto.
ARCHIVAL: How do I spell relief? VETO.
Jim Burnley: From day one, when we saw the house bill, there were too many earmarks.
NARR: Jim Burnley was Reagan’s Deputy Secretary of Transportation. And as he recalls, the spending they were most opposed to were the so-called earmarks – funding for specific projects written in by individual congresspeople. Now for politicians like Tip O'Neill and Ted Kennedy, earmarking, or what Reagan liked to call pork-barrel politics, was nothing to be ashamed of – it was a point of pride that they brought home the goods for their voters. That's how politics was supposed to work, plus it helped build bipartisanship and cooperation when everyone could benefit from a big bill. But Reagan thought the whole thing had gone too far.
Jim Burnley: And the central artery became the sort of poster child for all the other earmarks. I mean, it was an earmark that was by several orders of magnitude bigger than any other earmark.
NARR: Of course, the folks behind the Central Artery project didn’t think of it as an earmark.
Matt Coogan: One of the words we hated most was that we were an earmark.
NARR: They saw it as a legitimate piece of the Interstate System. And there's some truth to both sides here. I mean the most extreme earmarks are truly oddball projects that have gone through none of the usual channels for federal funding. The Artery had gone through the usual channels, but in the end it still wound up kind of shoehorned into this bill – the unwilling poster child for all pork-barrel spending.
Chip DeWitt: They, they made it that way cuz it was the biggest item.
NARR: And besides the philosophical differences, there was of course the personal piece.
Jim Burnley: The central artery earmark was viewed as a sort of going away gift to Speaker O'Neill.
NARR: The old rivalry – the boogeyman, the foil. So on top of everything else, the 1987 Highway Bill became a kind of final showdown between Reagan and O'Neill -- a test of their philosophies, and of their influence. O’Neill was just a shadow at this point, he was out of office. And Reagan, for his part, was having a tough winter.
NARR: The 86 midterms had been bruising, and now the Iran-Contra scandal was just starting to blow up in his face.
ARCHIVAL: Give been reports that you were told directly or indirectly, at least twice, that the Contras were benefiting from Iran arms sale.
NARR: The Highway Bill was a chance to prove he still had some fight in him. And Democrats welcomed that fight. In essence the bill was “veto bait.”
ARCHIVAL: We're not about to fall on the ball and wait for the clock to run. Instead, we're going to have the greatest fourth quarter in presidential history.
NARR: All this was happening on a deadline, because the actual construction money that went out to states was once again beginning to run out. Congress had about two months to act.
Mary Jeka: It was really important to move it forward. And so it moved very quickly through the committees, you know, that was lightning speed.
NARR: Mary Jeka was a legislative aide to Senator Ted Kennedy, who will play an important role in this final leg of the race. Because the House was always going to be the easy part -- it was firmly in Democratic hands, and still quite loyal to Tip O'Neill.
Mary Jeka: We knew that wasn't where the showdown was going to be. We knew the showdown was gonna be in the Senate.
NARR: Democrats had just clawed back a majority in the Senate in 86 midterms, but that majority was thin, certainly not enough to override a presidential veto.
ARCHIVAL: HR two and ACT to authorize funds for construction of highways…
NARR: In March, the Highway Bill passed both houses of Congress and arrived in the conference committee, where the House version and Senate version get reconciled.
There were still important differences between the two bills. The House bill had all the earmarks in it – including authorizing funding for the Central Artery project. But the Senate had their own wishlist. Most notably, they wanted to raise the speed limit back to 65 miles per hour, after it had been dropped down to 55 during the oil crisis of the 70s.
Mary Jeka: The 55 was not popular in the Western states because when you're driving on those open roads, people wanna go faster, right. They don't wanna get tickets going 55 miles an hour.
NARR: The man standing in the Senate’s way was our friend from New Jersey: Jim Howard.
Brian Donnelly: Jim Howard his proudest, his biggest thing was the 55 mile hour street limit.
ARCHIVAL: Distinguished chairman, gentleman from New Jersey. Mr. Howard,
NARR: For Howard it was a matter of safety, and not up for debate.
ARCHIVAL: Mr. Chairman and members of committee, the 55 mile per hour national maximum speed limit has been responsible for the saving over the years of tens of thousands of lives.
NARR: But in March of 1987, when it was finally time for the two chambers to wheel and deal, Howard knew that the speed limit was the most powerful card he held. If he wanted to honor that promise to his friend, he’d have to put it on the table. And he did.
Chip DeWitt: And I'll never forget that Mr. Howard starts off the conference committee and says, I want to ask about the central artery project.
NARR: They went around the room, and now, thanks to the speed limit, everyone was finally on board.
Chip DeWitt: And it was like, it's here, we made it. This is in, in the bill.
Ian Coss: That was the first time you had House, Senate, federal Highway, all on the same page.
Chip DeWitt: All in the same page.
ARCHIVAL: Mr. Speaker, pursuant to the rule, I call up the conference report on HR two.
NARR: On March 18th, Jim Howard proudly announced the results of the conference on the floor of the house.
ARCHIVAL: I might say that, uh, this five year bill will bring to the end a great era in transportation legislation in this country because with this legislation we will complete the construction of the interstate system in this nation.
Chip DeWitt: So we're thinking, this is great. And then
NARR: The very next day…
Chip DeWitt: Reagan writes a letter saying, if these projects are in there, I'm gonna veto it. One of the projects was the Central Artery Project.
NARR: Reagan had taken the bait.
ARCHIVAL: If the American people need any further proof as to who is responsible for the deficit, all they have to do is, look at this 87 and a half billion dollar budget busting highway in transit bill passed by Congress last week. The bill's a textbook example of special interest pork barrel politics at work, and I have no choice but to veto it.
NARR: Everything about this was unusual.
ARCHIVAL: It's time for me to start writing.
NARR: Since 1956, the Interstate program had been continually re-authorized and expanded through seven presidential administrations, Republican and Democrat. In 30 years, not a single one of those bills had ever been vetoed. Now, here we are days away from the Federal Highway administration actually running out of money, and the government is at an impasse. The bipartisan covenant around highway funding had shown cracks before, but this was something else. The covenant had collapsed.
The only question now was: would Congress override the president’s veto?
Mary Jeka: The numbers were so close. The house obviously quickly overrode it. The real battle took place in the Senate side.
NARR: The Democrats had a 54 to 46 majority in the Senate. That meant they would need all their members on board, plus thirteen Republicans to override the veto. Now today you might say no way, game over. But this was still a highway bill, and bipartisanship was not dead yet. So Mary Jeka and the rest of Kennedy's staff got to work.
Mary Jeka: Trying to figure out who's wobbly. Who's not wobbly. Who would flip. And, um, it was very, very hard to nail people down very hard.
NARR: Jeka's job was to gather intelligence from other staffers. Then she'd write up talking points on index cards customized for each Senator that Kennedy needed to talk to.
Mary Jeka: And then right before he'd go up to someone, he'd say, you know, Sims, this is what I need to say to Sims, you know, Mitchell, this is what I need to say to Mitchell.
NARR: The speed limit proved to be very valuable in these conversations – those Western senators really wanted to drive faster.
Mary Jeka: And they were willing to buck their party to get it because it was so popular.
NARR: And it wasn’t just the Western Republicans, either. A young senator from Kentucky also threw his weight behind the highway bill. Perhaps you've heard of him...
ARCHIVAL: I do believe that's Mitch McConnel.
NARR: Mitch McConnell got personally lobbied by Reagan, and was even invited to a meeting at the White House. Jim Burnley had totally forgotten this happened, until he started preparing for our interview.
Jim Burnley: I was, slack jawed when I saw the picture because, you know, he was a freshman senator he was effectively a back bencher. Yet, you know, getting his vote was so important, um, that he got that meeting.
NARR: It's kind of hard to imagine the McConnell of today bucking his own party and president, but the practice of earmarking was not just for Democrats, and some Republicans felt that in this case, Reagan had simply picked the wrong fight. The override vote was scheduled for April 1st.
Mary Jeka: The night for the vote, I was on the floor, trying to get intelligence, trying to figure it out, you know, just right to the end. And one of the democratic floor staffers, Marty came up to me and said, the Senator wants you're back in his office. And I was like, oh, okay. Wonder why? So I went back to the office and there was the whole office gathered for a party.
NARR: There in the middle of the group was a picture frame, covered by a cloak.
Mary Jeka: And I was like, what's that? And they said, oh, it's a present for you, Mary. then Kennedy ceremoniously pulled the cover off of it and said, you know, regardless if we win or lose Mary, we got it in the bill. We got it as far as we could have gotten it. I hope we win. But if we don't, you know, I wanna make sure you realize how appreciative I am of how much work we've all put into this.
NARR: It was a painting of a pig, and across the bottom in big block letters, were the words: "Mary Queen of Pork."
Mary Jeka: So Mary queen of pork hung above my office for the rest of the time I worked there.
NARR: And I can attest to the fact that it still hangs in her office to this day -- a reminder of that night when the Central Artery project hung in the balance.
Mary Jeka: And I don't think you even know if we were gonna win it. I mean, that's usually you kind of know the night before, but on that one, we didn't, we really didn't.
NARR: On the day of the vote, many of the Republicans who had originally supported the bill, flipped and joined Reagan’s side, opposing it. But thirteen Republicans – including Mitch McConnell – did in fact defy Reagan and vote to override... That brought the total to 65, one vote shy of the threshold they needed to throw out the veto and pass the bill. The last senator to vote was a Democrat from North Carolina, named Terry Sanford. He was a freshman, so just a few months into his very first term, and he stood down on the floor of the chamber, surrounded by that big semi-circle of wooden desks. His fellow Democrats huddled around speaking urgently, while the whole room waited quietly. Finally, Sanford ended the discussion, making a chopping motion with one hand. He then stunned everyone by simply voting 'present.'
Mary Jeka: And I said, what does that mean? And then of course, a lot of senators were asking the same question.
NARR: Sanford had said previously that he was unhappy with the bill, that he didn't think it did enough for North Carolina, but no one thought he'd be the deciding vote that would sink the whole thing. It seems Sanford was trying to wriggle out of that difficult position, by not taking a side at all.
Mary Jeka: And it went to the parliamentarian for a ruling as to whether you could vote, present on an override. And we had to wait while the parliamentarian thought about it and then came back and said, you can't vote, present on it.
NARR: At that point, Sanford changed his vote to sustain. Reagan's veto held, the bill was dead.
Mary Jeka: And I remember sitting on the floor after the vote, kind of devastated thinking, oh my goodness, we've lost this.
NARR: But then another twist.
Mary Jeka: Bob Byrd, who was the master parliamentarian.
NARR: This is the longtime Democratic senator from West Virginia...
Mary Jeka: Switched his vote to sustain the veto. And I, at first I was, you know, I was still young. I was like, why, what is he doing that for?
Jim Burnley: And the reason he did that was because you had to be on the winning side if you were gonna make a motion to reconsider.
NARR: A motion to reconsider is exactly what it sounds like – more time to think about a vote. But you can only ask for that time if you’re on the side that won.
Mary Jeka: So he switched his vote to be on the prevailing side, despite the fact that that really wasn't his vote. And then he called for a reconsideration, um, which was brilliant.
NARR: Now the pressure campaign began in earnest.
Mary Jeka: George Mitchell, Bob Byrd, Kennedy, everybody going up to Terry Sanford saying, you gotta switch your vote.
NARR: Salvucci told me there are a couple theories he's heard about what Ted Kennedy actually said to Sanford in that moment. One is that he made a heartfelt appeal.
Fred Salvucci: Saying, Look, our families have been friends for decades. We've always been together. This one's really important to me.
NARR: Basically, playing good cop. But there's another version of this conversation Salvucci has heard...
Fred Salvucci: Look, you know, every year tobacco subsidies come up and you get all your money and we go along. But if you screw Massachusetts, I'm gonna become very interested in the adverse health effects of cigarettes. And you're gonna have a lot of trouble next time.
NARR: Believe what you will, but about three hours later, Mary Jeka got a message from another senate staffer.
Mary Jeka: He buzzed me. He said, Mary something's happening on the floor. You'd best go down. He said, I think Sanford is changing his vote.
NARR: Sanford once again took center stage, and announced that he was voting to override. The bill was alive again, but it was time for the other side to play their last card. Bob Dole, the lead Republican in the Senate now asked for more time so that Reagan himself could pay a visit to the capitol.
Mary Jeka: Very unusual move. Very, I, I don't think in all the years I was there, I ever saw it again. He came down and button-holed the 12 senators, which he thought, you know, he could get to switch and, so we went, we waited for hours.
NARR: In his personal diary, Reagan acknowledged that the move might make him look that much more desperate and weak if it failed, but ultimately he decided he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he didn't at least try. He began by reciting an old folk song to his colleagues: "I am wounded but not slain. I will rest awhile. But I will rise and fight again." Then, according to one senator, the president said: "I beg you to vote with me on this." He literally used the word beg.
Mary Jeka: I then remember a couple hours later Dole coming out and saying the vote can proceed.
NARR: The Senators gathered for a third time in the chamber. Ted Kennedy personally escorted Terry Sanford back into the room, to make sure no Republicans could get close to him.
Mary Jeka: Everybody was seated in their chairs, which is unusual. And in a very dramatic roll call vote, one by one, they stood up from their chairs and voted.
ARCHIVAL: Transportation may I help you?
NARR: Amazingly, WGBH captured this moment of the vote, from the other end, in Boston.
ARCHIVAL: Waiting for the vote, still waiting for the vote. The phones never stopped today at the state office of transportation, and once the Senate vote started, so did the vigil.
NARR: We see Salvucci leaning anxiously in a doorway as the votes are called on C-SPAN.
ARCHIVAL: He'd waited 15 years for this moment. So today, every NAY was agony, every Aye, a relief, mr. Cochran, Mr. Cochran, I, Mr. Menon, uh, either white.
NARR: He physically responds to each vote, pressing his fist to his forehead, then throwing his head back, then leaning in closer.
Fred Salvucci: I'm standing counting on my fingers and hearing vote by vote. And then the Sanford vote comes and like it breaks out in celebration.
NARR: With that, the Big Dig became the last major project funded under the Interstate Program – the end of an era.
Mary Jeka: We won it by one vote, it was that close.
NARR: In hindsight, the Interstate Era is remarkable for its political clarity. You had virtual consensus on what was being built (interstate highways), and where the money was coming from (the gas tax). You had a map, you had rules, you had a system – and most importantly, you had buy-in from the whole country. It was a national project, and politically at least, it worked incredibly well. But once the interstate was done, everything about that consensus was falling apart.
Now, states wanted money for rapid transit, for airport projects – things the federal government had not historically funded to the same degree. The highway projects that did remain were like the Big Dig – small, expensive, mostly in cities – and just harder to build support around. At the same time, you had fiscal conservatives like Reagan and later George Bush, pushing to limit the role of the federal government – to cut taxes and cut spending. And that combination basically gives us the infrastructure politics we live with today, where there is nothing close to consensus about what should be built, and how we should pay for it. That unified vision of the Interstate Era has never been replicated again.
NARR: Tip O'Neill did not live to see the tunnel that bears his name. He died in 1994, the same year Ronald Reagan announced to the world that he was suffering from Alzheimer's, and retreated from public life. But O'Neill did get the satisfaction of his going away present -- of seeing that highway bill pass, and seeing his old sparring partner forced into retreat. Reagan wrote in his diary that night: "I knew when I left I'd failed." And not that he needed it, but that day Tip got one more reminder that even on the biggest political stage in the country, when the stakes are highest, all politics truly is local.
ARCHIVAL: And it didn't take long for the party to start. I didn't drink when this started.
NARR: Back in Boston, Salvucci popped the champagne cork himself, and raised a foam cup in a toast to his team.
ARCHIVAL: You’ve all been great. I really appreciate it. Salud.
NARR: Then he passed around the shovels and hardhats for a photo op, as well-wishers flooded into the transportation building.
ARCHIVAL: They're calling this a big defeat for Ronald Reagan, but at this party, they're saying the lesson is even presidents have to learn. You don't fool with Fred.
NARR: But those shovels and hard hats -- and the celebration -- were premature, because Fred Salvucci still had to face one final test. All along, there had been battles Salvucci knew he would have to fight for this project. He knew that the Ed Kings and Ray Barnharts of the world would try and stop it, that we would have to outmaneuver them, or wait them out. But what he faced next was not a fight anyone would have expected. It would pit Salvucci against environmentalists, local residents, anti-highway activists and members of his own staff.
NARR: In fact, this fight would look a lot like the anti-highway battles of the 1960s.
ARCHIVAL: In some ways it's like the Biblical David battling the Mighty Goliath.
NARR: Except that this time, Salvucci is the Goliath.
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 from Lisa Wardle. Mei Lei is the project manager, and the Executive Producer is Devin Maverick Robins.
Special thanks this episode to John Cahill, Paul Snyder and Jeff Davis who provided valuable insights on this story. Jeff put together an incredible collection of primary source documents on the 1987 Highway Bill, which you can find at enotrans.org. I’m also grateful to the Reagan Library and C-SPAN for the archival audio.
If you want to see some wonderful archival footage of Tip O’Neill, and find other content about the show, go to 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.