Part 6: The Up Down Charts
About The Episode
As work progresses through the 1990s and the tunnels take shape, the true cost of the Big Dig remains unknown to the public, until a series of revelations pulls down the curtain and shakes confidence in the whole project.
NARR: The first recorded use of the phrase "Big Dig" was in a WGBH TV special from 1988. This was a few years before construction began, and also, the year I was born.
ARCHIVAL: This is all very familiar to Boston: massive construction projects changing the face of the city, but not since the back bay was filled in or the city subway system built. Has there been anything like what's about to happen...
NARR: As I watch this special now, knowing what's about to happen, knowing how things will go, I'm really struck by the narrative around the Big Dig at this time, in the 80s, and how different it is from the narrative as I remember it, in the 90s and 2000s.
NARR: The old narrative is pretty much summed up in the title of the special:
ARCHIVAL: The question is, will Boston survive the big day?
Rick Dimino: You know, the story of the project in theory was supposed to be the city of Boston's gonna come to a grinding halt.
NARR: Rick Dimino was Transportation Commissioner for the City of Boston in those years leading up to the Big Dig.
Rick Dimino: You won't be able to move, business as we know it will come to an end.
ARCHIVAL: This project is impacting 19 different neighborhood areas
NARR: I mean, building a tunnel through a dense city is no small thing. People were reasonably worried about noise, and power outages, about the traffic during the long years of construction, what all this would mean for commuters, for tourism, for small businesses.
ARCHIVAL: Millions of rats living underground will have to be contained.
NARR: There was a theory that all the digging would force millions of rats up into the streets of Boston.
ARCHIVAL: What are you gonna do about the million rats?
Rick Dimino: That's what the story was supposed to be.
NARR: Traffic, parking, noise, rats...
NARR: And you know what you didn't hear as much about in those days,
ARCHIVAL: Are you concerned about the cost for this project?
NARR: was the cost...
ARCHIVAL: I think the costs are being pretty well taken care of by the federal and state sharing. I'm more concerned about the traffic impacts.
NARR: The cost, at that point in 1988 was an academic concern, but not for long.
NARR: From GBH News this is The Big Dig: a study in American infrastructure. I'm Ian Coss.
When I talk to people about the Big Dig today – if they know just one thing about it, they know it was really expensive…almost 15 billion dollars – not counting interest. In the public consciousness, that one piece of the story has become the story. The obvious question to ask of course, is why did it cost so much? And there are many answers. But the more interesting question to me is why did the cost matter so much? How did that become the story? Because it was not inevitable.
This is Part 6: The Up Down Charts.
Pre-RollNARR: The Big Dig's cost crisis had a long fuse that burned for many years. But it was lit in 1993. That was the year Jim Kerasiotes, the notoriously aggressive Secretary of Transportation, finally settled that thorniest and most controversial piece of the whole project: the Charles River Crossing. Remember Scheme Z? The vindictive parking lot owner? That controversy. After three years of debate, it was over.
Jim Kerasiotes: The decision on the Charles river crossing was very real because at that point I knew that we were totally in the game.
NARR: At last, Kerasiotes could define the full scope of the project -- he could wrap his hands around it and say: this is what we're going to build.
Jim Kerasiotes: And, I also knew that it was the last opportunity to meaningfully adjust the project budget. And Bechtel came in with staff and I said, so what's this gonna cost?
NARR: Bechtel, remember, was the private company managing the project, and apparently they were optimistic that day: just add a few hundred million to the existing budget. That should cover the new bridge design, and we'll be good to go thank you very much.
Jim Kerasiotes: I said, You guys have rocks in your head.
NARR: Kerasiotes, who was already experiencing the messy reality of actual construction, could see that these numbers were not realistic.
Jim Kerasiotes: I mean, instinctively, I knew that they were off that it was going to be more. And I will be, you know, I'll be brutally honest with you. I made up a number. I just said, I'll tell you what, I'll give you an extra billion dollars. I said, and don't come back. You're done. We're done.
NARR: The final number Kerasiotes arrived at that day was $7.7 billion dollars.
Jim Kerasiotes: Everybody Salutes. Oh, thank you. Thank you. Everything's gr you know, this is wonderful. This is, this is good news. Federal highway falls, right in line, like, you know, I made the fucking number up and I, to this day, I scratch my head and I say to myself, this is how we run the government.
NARR: But very quickly, there were doubts about whether even that figure was realistic.
Jim Kerasiotes: Leave it to Bechtel. It took 'em 12 weeks to come back.
NARR: This time, it was Bechtel saying the project would cost more, billions more. But now, Kerasiotes wouldn't budge. He saw the whole cost issue through a kind of psychological lens: as long as people believed the price could keep going up, it would keep going up. Give a hundred, it'll go up a thousand. Give a thousand, it'll go up a million.
Jim Kerasiotes: So if you don’t put limits on something it will spiral and continue to go out of control.
NARR: He had to take a stand somewhere, a loud and public stand. And this was it: 7.7 billion.
ARCHIVAL: when you look the people in the eye tonight and promise them after this election is over…
NARR: When Governor Weld went back to the voters in 1994, he carried that 7.7 billion figure with him.
ARCHIVAL: Yeah, I absolutely will look at people in the eye right now and say we will manage to the 7.7 billion dollar figure plus inflation. That's the word I'm getting from Jim Kerasiotes, who's the Secretary of transportation…
NARR: But that promise was always backed by the word and reputation of Jim Kerasiotes.
ARCHIVAL: …and Jim Kerasiotes.
NARR: Kerasiotes must have known that there were a thousand things that could go wrong, a thousand ways the cost could go up, but he staked himself to that number nevertheless. He owned it.
Jim Kerasiotes: And, and that was my job. And I don't apologize for it ever.
NARR: With the Charles River Crossing back on track, work could finally begin on putting the Central Artery underground. So everything we talked about in the last episode – like the Fort Point Channel – that was all for the harbor tunnel over to the airport, the other half of the project. Interesting stuff, but for me, the Central Artery is the main event. This was the idea that set our whole story in motion, and now promised to transform downtown Boston.
We're talking about a mile and a half of highway, 8 to 10 lanes wide, with on-ramps, off-ramps, interchanges, and all the trimmings, now being stuffed into the soil of one of the oldest cities in America – under hundreds of years worth of cobblestones and rubble, sneaking between skyscrapers, dodging subway lines, and all while the business of that city went on, non-stop.
Burying the Central Artery was such a huge project that the construction work was broken down into six major contracts, each done by different companies, so that all six sections could be built simultaneously. The first contract was awarded in 1995, for the southernmost piece, running underneath Atlantic Ave.
Bill Womack: Atlantic Al, we were the first big contract.
NARR: Bill Womack was VP of Operations for the company leading the contract.
Bill Womack: And don't hold me to these numbers, but it's like 370 million.
NARR: $378 actually, just for one section out of six.
Ian Coss: Check, check, check. Yep.
NARR: At least, that is what it was supposed to be.
Ian Coss: Could you just sort of show me around? Yeah,
Frank Martinez: Well, uh, lemme just see if I can get your hair hat or something you know, go ahead.
NARR: Frank Martinez was a foreman on Atlantic Ave -- meaning he was down in the hole supervising work, for over nine years. A decade of his life on this one job. Martinez is still a foreman, and when we met he was working on some new escalators for a transit station...
Ian Coss: Is this about how deep it was when you were working on the Big Dig,
Frank Martinez: or, uh, no the Big Dig was a lot deeper
NARR: He calls this job the mini-dig, because it's just around the corner from the old Artery. Martinez told me just being down in this soil again, brings back memories.
Frank Martinez: Absolutely, you know, man, it brings nightmares, not memories, so.
ARCHIVAL: First of all, before any real Artery construction can begin, all the utilities along the pathway have to be relocated.
NARR: Step one was utilities.
ARCHIVAL: Gas, thermal, electric, telephone and sewer lines…
NARR: 29 miles of pipes and cables crisscrossing through the ground where the tunnel was supposed to go, all had to be reorganized.
ARCHIVAL: In a recent survey of consumer concerns, loss of telephone service rated the highest
NARR: This was potentially one of the most disruptive parts of the whole project, because these utilities we're talking about served the whole downtown. Pierce a water main, you get a flood, cut an electrical line, you get a blackout, tear up the wrong fiber optic cable, you shut down all transactions at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.
Maureen McCaffrey: So everybody had an orange vest that had a pocket in the back.
NARR: Maureen McCaffrey was a project engineer on Atlantic Ave.
Maureen McCaffrey: so you had your field book and your radio and your tape measure and your can of spray paint and you know, your utility plans.
NARR: Now in theory, those plans everyone carried showed where all the existing utilities were, but remember, it's a 400 year old city.
Frank Martinez: Nobody knew what the hell we were gonna find down there.
NARR: So very carefully, like archeologists almost, the contractors started exploring the soil under Atlantic Ave.
Bill Womack: We ran into cobble stones. Granite piers
Maureen McCaffrey: Wooden water lines, archaic utilities
NARR: There was a sewer pipe, eight feet wide...
Bill Womack: to get down into the blue clay was, was a nightmare.
NARR: And every time they found something that was not in the plans, work would stop, so an engineer like McCaffrey could come check it out.
Maureen McCaffrey: That is an event that happened almost every single day.
Frank Martinez: It was constantly changes constantly.
NARR: To some extent, the contractors had accounted for unforeseen challenges in their bid. They knew there would be errors in the plans, that they'd have to be flexible, but this went beyond that.
Maureen McCaffrey: Well outside of what we considered to be reasonable.
NARR: Bill Womack believes that the contracts for the Artery were essentially rushed into construction before they were ready, due to political pressure, which meant Atlantic Ave, as the first one out of the gate, became the guinea pig.
ARCHIVAL: We're a hundred feet down right now, roughly.
NARR: As the crews on Atlantic Ave cleared away the utilities and worked their way deeper into the ground, they found new challenges.
Frank Martinez remembers working through the winter and never being able to see the sun. It was dark and cold. The pit itself was criss-crossed with massive beams and decked over with a temporary road to keep traffic moving, so all day he would hear trucks bouncing along, high up over his head.
And then there was the water.
Ian Coss: Why, why was it so hard to control the water down there?
Frank Martinez: there? Because you're so deep the water always finds a way, you know what I mean?
NARR: The water table in Boston is only about 15 feet below the ground. The tunnel went down up to 120 feet. So moisture was constantly seeping in, turning the work site into a mud pit.
Frank Martinez: You lose your boots, you lose everything. I mean, it was just very, very sticky material down there.
NARR: In 1996, the situation got so bad that the Atlantic Ave contractors spent most of the year pumping water out of the worksite -- enough that they actually lowered the water table in the whole area by 45 feet. Enough that the skyscrapers looming all around them started settling ever so slightly on their foundations.
NARR: Despite a few scary-sounding headlines about sinking skyscrapers, the worst fears about the project's physical impact were never realized. There was no biblical plague of rats, no massive blackouts, no exodus of businesses. The traffic was bad, sure, but it never stopped. The entire elevated artery was propped up on temporary supports, as the tunnel was being dug beneath it -- just to keep the road open. Residents near the work site got free air conditioners so they could keep their windows shut and block out the noise. All those problems had solutions. The problem no one could solve was the cost.
Every surprise, every bump, every deviation from the plans turned into what's called a 'change order' -- essentially a request by the contractor for more money to cover whatever the issue is. But with the Big Dig, the cost of all those changes became magnified, because there was incredible pressure to keep the various contracts in sync with each other. If one section of the tunnel fell behind the others, that threw off the whole plan. You'd have a tunnel with a gap in the middle of it. So every time there was a delay under Atlantic Ave -- say from water pumping, unexpected utilities -- that delay had to be made up for.
Frank Martinez: we worked as many as 90 hours a week
NARR: That meant overtime. Fifteen hour days. Ninety hour weeks -- whatever it took really, to make up that time, and get the contracts back on schedule.
Frank Martinez: When I leave the house, the kids were sleeping by the time I get home, they were already sleeping because they had to go to school the next morning. So, yeah…
NARR: Some days, Frank's wife would bring the kids over to Atlantic Ave in the middle of the day so they could all at least have lunch together. That's basically how he watched his kids grow up: over Burger King and Chinese food in the South Station food court.
NARR: All that overtime, all those extra shifts, they became part of the cost of these change orders.
Bill Womack: So as you continue the progress in the field, the change orders continue to amount up.
NARR: Those change orders made their way to Bill Womack, who would then present them to Bechtel-Parsons and the state. The dynamic here is exactly what you'd expect: the contractors ask for more money, Bechtel and the state push back. Bechtel even had buttons made up for the project staff, with the word "change" on them, and a line through it.
Bill Womack: As it turned out, we had hundreds of thousands, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of changes.
NARR: Just for the Atlantic Ave contract. Everyone had to acknowledge that some of these changes were justified, that the job was more difficult than anticipated in that original bid.
Bill Womack: And at the end of the day, it ended up at 580 million in round numbers. So it almost doubled in the process of building it, just looking for changes.
NARR: Now imagine this same process playing out across a dozen major construction contracts, and dozens of smaller ones. Every day, something unexpected. Every day, a change. Every day, a delay.
And yet there was something mysterious going on...
NARR: The cost of an individual contract might go up, but the official cost of the whole project didn't budge. For six years, from 1993 all the way through 1999, the official cost estimate was really only adjusted to account for inflation.
ARCHIVAL: What I'm happy to report is that this project is on time
NARR: Here is Kerasiotes in 1998 -- reiterating his promise to business leaders.
ARCHIVAL: I stood again at this microphone and said in 1993 that this project would cost 7.7 billion plus inflation. It still does.
NARR: And it went well beyond just assurances and promises.
ARCHIVAL: I think Joe Malone's running the lights here.
NARR: When a candidate for governor named Joe Malone questioned the project finances, Kerastioes called in to a live radio show and berated him on air until Malone hung up. When a sitting congressman named Jim McGovern dared to comment on project finances, Kerasiotes responded with a three-word message, "Jim, stop whining." It was never a conversation, just a rebuke: you're wrong, we’re on budget.
Tom Palmer: Well, I mean, he could say that and I had to report it, but everybody kind of knew that wasn't gonna be the case.
NARR: By the late 90s, two reporters on the Big Dig beat – Tom Palmer of the Globe and Laura Brown of the Herald – were both getting suspicious about the cost.
Laura Brown: I had sources who were telling me the cost was way above what he was telling us.
Tom Palmer: the real number was gonna come out, but I didn't have it on the record.
Laura Brown: And we were all chasing that story.
NARR: I would say that the basic storytelling ingredients are now in place: mystery and conflict -- an obvious tension in need of resolution. The cost of the project had become a story, a good story. And at the center of it all was a tragic hero, perhaps an anti-hero, who had backed himself into a corner.
Andy Paven: Jim Caros used to tell people that not only was he Greek, he was Spartan.
NARR: Andy Paven worked as a spokesperson for the Big Dig.
Andy Paven: and what the mothers told the children, the warriors, was to come home with your shield or on it.
Ian Coss: So with your shield or on it means like you're fighting or you're dead.
Andy Paven: You're either die in battle or you come home victorious. And if you are not victorious, you don't come home. And that's how he approached public life.
So, you know, it, it kind of appropriate, it, the lead figure in every Greek tragedy has one character flaw the hamartia that leads to his downfall. I, I, I guess it was hubris. It was the belief that through force of personality, he would hold the line on what this project was going to cost. I think that's what did him in.
Mid-RollNARR: A new character enters the story in 1999. He was an old friend and loyal ally of Kerasiotes, but nevertheless, he would bring about a reckoning – a crisis almost a decade in the making that sealed the narrative of the Big Dig. His name is Pat Moynihan.
Ian Coss: So I wanna fast forward a bit to when Jim asked you to be project director mm-hmm. For the Central Artery internal project. Do you remember how that played out?
Pat Moynihan: I was uh, reluctant to say the least. My wife said I was crazy to take the job, but I felt as though, you know, Jim asked me to do it. So I was. gonna do it.
NARR: Moynihan was taking over from Peter Zuk, who you may recall from the last episode. Zuk had really shepherded the Big Dig from an idea on the page, to the largest construction project in America. But now, he was moving on.
Pat Moynihan: And so when he left the project, I asked Peter, anything I should be concerned about. And his, uh, his response to me was, nothing, you can't handle Pat. I said, okay.
NARR: When Moynihan became Project Director,, the official cost of the Big Dig stood at $10.8 billion. I know that sounds like a big jump up from 7.7, which it is, but believe it or not that is mostly just from inflation. The Big Dig actually caught a tough break on this, because as the project was underway, Federal Highway rewrote the rules on them and decided that all cost estimates now had to account for future inflation. That's part of the reason the Big Dig numbers look so bad, is that they straddle different systems of accounting. In any case, that 10.8 figure now included inflation all the way through the end of the project -- but if you peek under the hood, the underlying assumptions about the work being done and the money it would take had not really changed.
When Moynihan came in the door, he had no concrete reason to doubt that 10.8 number. But then, in his first few weeks of the job, project staff sat him down and introduced him to something they called the Up Down Charts.
NARR: The Up Down Charts were the clever bit of accounting that had allowed the official cost estimate to hold steady for so long. The up side of the chart showed the change orders and delays -- things that were pushing the cost up. But then all those increases were matched dollar for dollar on the down side, with things like using less tile on the tunnel walls, selling off air rights for development over the tunnel, shifting expenses to other state agencies. In theory, everything balanced out, and the total cost remained 10.8 billion.
Pat Moynihan: It was a bit of a shock though, you know, that, that there was this, these variances, which, of course, I, I really didn't know anything about.
NARR: Moynihan was worried that the way things were going, the down side wouldn't balance out the up side -- that there was a gap. But he couldn't take that news straight to Jim Kerasiotes -- not just yet. Moynihan had to be sure.
Pat Moynihan: I just kept my head down. Worked it .
NARR: He went instead to Bechtel-Parsons -- the joint venture managing the whole Big Dig.
Pat Moynihan: Said to them, look, you know, when was the last time that you really took this project and did the bottom up review. Right? When was the last time you did that?
NARR: Their response: 1993 -- six years ago at this point. Moynihan told them to get to work.
Pat Moynihan: every contract, every element you need to go through this project, with a fine tooth comb. Come up with a number.
NARR: They spent months reviewing every expense, and Moynihan became increasingly dismayed with what he was learning. There were huge costs not even accounted for in the budget, and some of these costs went back years. In a moment of frustration, Moynihan fired off a letter to his predecessor, Peter Zuk, the one who had told him: "nothing you can't handle, Pat." Now, Moynihan responded: "Peter, I can't tell you how disappointed I am."
As far as Moynihan could tell, none of these additional costs had even been reported to Jim Kerasiotes. No one, it seems, wanted to bring him bad news.
NARR: As late as the summer of 1999, as the bottom-up review was underway, Kerasiotes was out front dismissing reports by the Globe and the State Inspector General that the cost was going to be higher than 10.8.
Andy Paven: I think unfortunately, Jim Kerasiotes made the price, the yardstick for measuring success.
NARR: Andy Paven, the Big Dig spokesperson, was always wary of this strategy, of putting so much public emphasis on a fixed number.
Andy Paven: You're setting yourself on a scale that you can't achieve. You can't succeed at that.
NARR: And more than that, it just wasn’t the way to sell this project.
Andy Paven: Nobody has context for 7.8 billion and what that means, or the difference between 7.8 and 8.8 billion. I mean, a billion is a lot. But I, that was my, that was my sense was that, that we were always overly afraid of the number of the price. And that wasn't the way to present it.
NARR: Paven recalls urging Kerasiotes to hold public events down in the tunnels, do more to showcase the engineering and the future benefits, the good stuff.
Andy Paven: And yet because we were sort of singularly focused on what is this going to cost, that was what we fell into and ignored the idea that we were getting what could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to rebuild an aging city.
Ian Coss: So is that the lesson for you? From the big dig that like you have to find a way to keep the focus on the purpose and not on the cost. Yeah. When it's happening?
Andy Paven: Yes. Yeah. The only way you maintain support for a project is to focus on the reason you're doing it.
NARR: We’ll never know if that kind of PR strategy would have made any difference. Paven stepped down from his job in 1999 – he was all done selling the ‘on time on budget line.’ Pat Moynihan, on the other hand, who had known Kerasiotes for decades and counted him as a friend, very much understood the game his boss was playing.
Pat Moynihan: You know, we had to maintain the amount of pressure necessary to, to have people working towards that 10.8 billion.
Ian Coss: Right. It almost seems to me like that number, that cost estimate is like a necessary fiction. Like you said, you need a hard number to work towards because if there is no cap, then it'll just go up and up and up and up.
Pat Moynihan: That's right.
Ian Coss: But at the same time, there is a kind of unspoken understanding that we don't really know. I mean, how could you know?
Pat Moynihan: You know? Right. I mean, that's, and that was the whole exercise of the up down and keeping people focused on that. And, you know, could I have gone in the first month of the job and said, Hey, you know, they're telling me it's higher than this. You know, he would've get outta here, you know, you know, cut down. And that's, that's not what I sent you down there for, you know, You've gotta manage this thing. And, uh, it took me a while. To buy into the number, because once You have the number. That's the number. It becomes the number right. You have to get it to the point where there's just no other options. And that's basically where we were in December of 1999. You know, that number was the number.
NARR: Now, Moynihan had to bring his boss the new number, a big number.
Jim Aloisi: Pat Monahan Um, call me up one day. He said, I need your help.
NARR: James Aloisi had worked with the Big Dig as a general counsel -- so he understood the legal landscape as well as the politics of the project.
Jim Aloisi: He says, well, we need an intervention with Jim. And I just need people like you to sit with him during the intervention so that he gets the seriousness of the problem.
NARR: Moynihan rented a suite at the Park Plaza Hotel, someplace private, away from the project staff. Just a handful of people were in the room.
Pat Moynihan: Look, Jim, you know me, I've done everything I can do here.
NARR: Then he broke the news.
Jim Kerasiotes: Pat said, we have some turds in the punch bowl.
NARR: That the project was short, almost 1.4 billion dollars.
Jim Kerasiotes: I was shocked. Um, I was, I was shocked, I was dismayed. Um, I didn't know whether to believe them.
Ian Coss: and you're totally blindsided by this.
Jim Kerasiotes: Yeah. I can remember, um, uh, leaving the hotel, and basically saying, I, I think I'm gonna go get a drink, yeah, which I did.
NARR: But Kerasiotes did not have the luxury of time, because someone else was starting to ask questions about the Big Dig budget: the state's new treasurer.
ARCHIVAL: The fact is, tonight we've made history in Massachusetts.
NARR: Shannon O'Brien became the first woman in Massachusetts history to be elected to statewide office on her own ticket. And yes, state treasurer is not one of the more high profile offices, but O'Brien would get more than her share of attention.
Shannon O'Brien: When I first got in there, it was a little bit of trial by fire.
NARR: In December of 1999, the same month of that intervention with Jim Kersaiotes, the state issued a new round of bonds to raise money.
Shannon O'Brien: And I’m gonna have to sign off on this bond.
NARR: As Treasurer, it's her name on the signature line.
Shannon O'Brien: And the banker who is going to win that contract withdrew from the competition to do that. I mean, literally it's a competitive bidding process.
NARR: One of the things that bond would pay for, was the Big Dig, and it seemed like the bankers knew something she didn't know about the financial health of the project, if they suddenly didn't want to buy bonds that were funding it.
Shannon O'Brien: Turning back a billion dollar bond issuance that was unusual, really unusual. And it sent my, you know, spy senses going off. Like we have to do something here.
NARR: Meanwhile inside the project, Moynihan and Kerasiotes were considering their options: reveal the shortfall as soon as possible and try to move past it, or keep it under wraps until we have some good news to pair it with -- wait for a ribbon cutting, basically. Moynihan though, felt like it was time to come clean.
Pat Moynihan: I said, look, this is what happens? Right. The project like this, uh, It wasn't like we were uh, you know, being reckless, you know, people will understand,
NARR: People will understand.
Pat Moynihan: Pretty naive, huh?
NARR: Kerasiotes was not so naive. He understood the promises he had made, and the enemies he had made: all those people he had shouted down over the years for daring to contradict him. Now, there would be a price.
Jim Kerasiotes: I always enjoyed the Christmas holiday. And so I always had a 10 or 11 foot Christmas tree in my office, we had high ceilings And sort of the day before we were gonna part ways for the season, um, I would have, small gathering in the office. And, um, that night when the gathering was winding down and I was sitting on the couch, my arm was around Pat Mohan, and I said to him, Take a look at that tree Pat, because we're not gonna be here next year. And so I knew.
NARR: Everyone went home for the year. And I have to imagine that for a few days at least, the Big Dig felt small and fleeting, when you consider that our civilization was about to enter a new millenium. What's another billion dollars weighed against the last thousand years of human endeavor? Who would even remember all this a thousand years from now? It kind of puts things in perspective.
NARR: On December 31st, we all wondered together if the computers would come crashing down and the world would go dark. We gathered in crowds, and watched at home – counting down the final seconds..
ARCHIVAL: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.
NARR: Then we woke up the next day, and it was just another day. The computers still worked, and the Big Dig still had a billion dollar hole in it.
Jim Kerasiotes: So basically we wanted to get to an end result and announce it. Um, but we had gremlins, um, in our midst.
NARR: One of those gremlins -- for Kerasiotes at least -- was Shannon O'Brien.
Jim Kerasiotes: she saw attacking the project and perhaps blowing the thing up as an opportunity for her to make mischief. And she did.
Shannon O'Brien: You know the first time that I had to interact with him was when I had to say: you know, I’ve been hearing that there’s some potential cost overruns that aren’t being disclosed. We ended up having I think a breakfast at the Langham hotel.
NARR: In January of 2000, O'Brien asked Kerasiotes to meet for breakfast at one of the old classy hotels in downtown Boston -- the Langham. O'Brien and Kerasiotes got a corner table; she ordered a Diet Coke. According to O’Brien, everything was very cordial.
Shannon O'Brien: But I do remember the exact feeling where I said, I just have to raise this with you.
NARR: She told him about the rumors, about the banker suddenly withdrawing from the bond, and then she gave an ultimatum: give us the real numbers.
Shannon O'Brien: And I said to him, I need it by next week. And if it doesn't happen by next week, I'm gonna create a little crisis. I'm not gonna sign off on the general obligation bonds that are due to be, um, issued next week. That's gonna be a problem for a lot of people, but I am willing to do that because I don't believe that I'm going to be honest. If I sign off on those bonds.
Ian Coss: So when you leave that meeting…
Jim Kerasiotes: With her?
Ian Coss: Yeah, where do things stand?
Jim Kerasiotes: Um, nowhere. I basically told her that we were certainly willing to work with them. Um, she had no interest.
Shannon O'Brien: They called my first deputy and basically said I was a hysterical woman and could they get me to back off? And he said, I wasn't back enough.
NARR: Kerasiotes was running out of time, and options. The governor had to be notified. Bond rating agencies had to be notified. And already, his political enemies were getting wind of what was coming.
Tom Palmer: The cat was out of the bag. And so Jim knew he had to meet the press.
NARR: On February 1st, reporter Tom Palmer was summoned to the transportation building, along with Laura Brown from the Herald. Usually the two reporters would compete for a big scoop like this, but Kerasiotes wanted to give them both the same running start.
As Palmer recalls, Pat Moynihan initially described to them a cost increase in the neighborhood of one billion, then he stepped out into the hallway with the other project staff.
Tom Palmer: And we all, you know, were scribbling and getting ready to race back to our desks and write this, and Pat Moynihan turned around and came back. And said, oh, hell, make it 1.5. I mean, it was that like, we're gonna have to admit to that someday anyway, so let's do it now.
NARR: The final number was actually 1.4 -- but you get the idea.
Tom Palmer: What's a couple hundred million dollars in a project this big.
NARR: The next morning, on top of the Globe’s front page, was Tom Palmer's headline: "Big Dig costs take a jump of $1.4b." It was the single greatest cost increase in the project's history.
NARR: That day, a six year long fantasy collapsed. The Big Dig would not cost 10.8 billion, the number Kerasiotes had been clinging to for so long. It would be more.
ARCHIVAL: If you think you are furious about the big dig, the mess and the cost overruns you've got company.
NARR: This was a scandal unlike anything the project had faced.
ARCHIVAL: This project is suffered from gross mismanagement
NARR: there was a Congressional hearing,
ARCHIVAL: the artery project managers may have deliberately misled
NARR: Clinton's Secretary of Transportation was forced to go over to Capitol Hill and testify, John McCain even made it a talking point in his presidential campaign.
ARCHIVAL: Looking for some good news on the Big Dig today. Don't look in Washington. It was all bad.
NARR: Soon, a federal audit was underway, and an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
ARCHIVAL: federal officials have landed on the project with both feet
Pat Moynihan: every day there was something else,
NARR: Pat Moynihan told me: he only spent 13 months running the project, but it felt like 13 years.
Pat Moynihan: and it was whether it made Front page or front page Metro.
ARCHIVAL: I keep saying this is a story that has legs. It's not gonna go away.
Pat Moynihan: That was the kind of month or two that we had there.
NARR: This the Big Dig as I remember it growing up: a never ending source of outrage.
ARCHIVAL: in a boston Globe Poll published on Sunday, 48% said that Big Dig officials had intentionally misled the public about the project's cost.
NARR: And in that moment, the outrage found a clear focal point:
ARCHIVAL: Jim Kerasiotes has dug quite a hole for himself.
NARR: Jim Kerasiotes. The man who had spent a decade both dominating and defending this project, lashing out at anyone who dared to criticize it. Now, virtually no one came to defend him.
ARCHIVAL: And joining me now by satellite from Washington DC is Senator John Carey.
NARR: And all those enemies Kerastioes had made along the way, they were ready, their knives sharpened.
ARCHIVAL: I mean, the fact is that the state misled the federal government,
And I think Mr. Kerastioes in particular bears a deep, deep burden on this
NARR: This much outrage required a sacrifice and so in April of 2000, the governor demanded Kerasiotes step down. After almost ten years overseeing the project, he was done.
Ian Coss: I wonder is if as someone who, uh, in your own words, has fired a good number of people and on occasion made example of the person you were firing for dramatic effect. Yeah. Did you, did you understand what he was doing?
Jim Kerasiotes: Absolutely and I don't blame him. Wasn't happy about it. The story is you're a liar, you're a cheat. You know, you're hiding the baloney. You're, you know, you're not being honest. You're not being straightforward. And when the reality was, all we were trying to do was control the cost of the project at every step of the game.
Um, the right thing to do was to leave and I left.
NARR: In the months after his departure, Kerasiotes was proven right about one thing: once you open the door for cost increases, more would come. His initial announcement in February brought the total estimate to 12.2 billion. By April it was 13.5, by October 14.1, closing in on the final price tag of 14.8 billion. He insists to this day that he could have held the cost lower, if only he'd been given the chance, but his own actions made that impossible.
Charlie Baker, our last governor, once said: "If we didn't have a Jim Kerasiotes to manage this project, we'd have to invent one." Because somebody had to be out front during those most treacherous years – when the problems would be found, when the costs would rise, and when we’d have very little to show for it all. Kerasiotes -- for whatever reason, noble or not -- was willing to do that. And he was willing to force a kind of group delusion -- if he said it was on budget, we'd all have to behave as if it was on budget. He described the game to me as holding a beach ball underwater. The ball is always looking for a way to pop up to the surface, and his job was to deny it a way -- to show the contractors and the politicians, and the public that this was the cost.
Maybe his flaw was that Kerasiotes sold the on-budget fiction too well. He made people believe it, maybe he even came to believe it himself. And when the beach ball did surface, when the fiction was revealed for what it was, how else could we feel, but betrayed?
Frank Martinez: I'll be honest with you, for the longest time I just wanted to get the big dig outta my head.
NARR: Frank Martinez, the foreman on the Atlantic Ave contract, felt the outrage and resentment reflected right at him as we he worked those 15 hour days and 90 hour weeks.
Frank Martinez: I mean, we got to the point that we don't even wanna wear the, Big Dig shirts because people was always pointing at us oh, so these, the guys, they're stealing the money. You know what I mean? And that's basically one of the things that, uh, was bothering me a lot. We were just there doing the job, you know. People don't see what we go through to make this happen, you know?
Frank Martinez: You start thinking about how quick nine and a half years went, like I say, I had that time, I had two little kids. By the time I finished those kids, they were so big that I says, when the hell this happened? You know what I mean? You pretty much. Give yourself to that project and Yes. That so…well.
Ian Coss: I think you answered all my questions. Is there anything that we didn’t talk about that feels important that you wanna say?
Frank Martinez: I think we covered just about everything we should. Besides, I have to go to work…
NARR: The question I keep thinking about is whether the backlash, and this narrative around it, were inevitable. If those cost increases had just been announced earlier, or more gradually, if the promises around the budget were somehow less forceful – would we the public have responded any differently?
Maybe, but I’m kind of left thinking that if people had known all along just how expensive this project was going to be, it probably never would have happened. There's never really a good time to be transparent and realistic about cost, which I think is why so many of our public works projects go through this same manic cycle from promise to backlash, optimism to outrage. Because at the end of the day you do need a number to aim for: not so big that it's scary, not so small that it's laughable. Something everyone can live with and pretend is real. Then you just hope like hell you're not too far off when the bill comes.
ARCHIVAL: Now the question is, after changing horses in mid dig, can the project be completed on time?
NARR: But the story’s not over, and the politics of Big Dig funding, are about to get way weirder.
ARCHIVAL: And oh yes. Who's footing the bill for those pesky cost overruns?
NARR: That’s next time. 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 this episode from Sam Dieringer (DARE-in-JIR) . Mei Lei is the project manager, and the Executive Producer is Devin Maverick Robins.
To see archival video and learn more about the show, head to GBHNews dot org. And if you want to go deeper into the question of how we estimate the cost of big projects and why we so often get it wrong, I recommend a recent book by the scholar Bent Flyvbjerg (Flu-byerg), called “How Big Things Get Done.” He’s compiled incredible data on the subject and I found his insights extremely helpful.
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.
NARR: Even Kerasiotes could tell that it was no longer the time to be combative. He came before the state legislature, apologetic, and said quote: “If there is one thing that keeps me up at night – and I have had a few sleepless nights in the last few weeks – it is this: I should have done a better job explaining the facts to the Governor, to you, and most of all, to the public that is paying for this Project.” But it was becoming clear that apology wasn’t enough; explanation wasn’t enough. This much outrage demanded a sacrifice. In April of 2000, the governor demanded Kerasiotes step down.