Part 9: Hearts and Minds
About The Episode
It’s been fifty years since the Big Dig was first conceived, thirty years since construction began, more than a dozen years since it was completed – and the final twist is: the project has largely delivered on its promises. How do we reconcile that reality with the scandal and outrage we’ve heard so much about?
NARR: It’s July of 2023, the hottest month humans have ever recorded on planet Earth. But at 8am the heat is still more or less tolerable, so that is when I meet up with Fred Salvucci one last time.
Ian Coss: You want to take a little walk?
NARR: And he takes me on a tour of the project he set in motion: tearing down the elevated Central Artery, and restoring downtown Boston.
Fred Salvucci: This horrible garage, that was trying to block putting the central artery underground…
NARR: For Salvucci, this whole area is dense with memories -- of long ago battles, and small victories.
Fred Salvucci: We figured out a different way to do it, but they're doing their best to mess it up.
NARR: I try to imagine what it must be like to walk these blocks and know them like they were a giant chess board on which you’d spent the better part of twenty years arranging and rearranging the same pieces -- seeking that one path forward.
Fred Salvucci: this was my walk, except I'd have to divert over to Salem Street cause Hanover was blocked
NARR: We trace the walk he used to take under the elevated structure, back when a lunch of macaroni and beans cost half a buck. We pass Faneuil Hall, where activists from Eastie fiercely debated the fate of the Harbor Tunnel. Salvucci even points out the spot where he proposed to his wife, oddly enough, underneath an offramp for the old Artery.
Fred Salvucci: I had just picked her up and we were driving and, oh, here's a place to park.
Ian Coss: You just couldn't wait. Yeah, right.
NARR: Now, as he likes to say, the sun can shine on the exact spot where they got engaged.
NARR: Part of the reason I wanted to make this series, was to try and reconcile my own memories of the Big Dig -- everything I heard about it when I was growing up -- with what I see of the results today.
Fred Salvucci: That's a good sized tree.
Ian Coss: It's amazing how much these trees have grown. I mean, that can't be more than 20 years old.
Fred Salvucci: No, it's amazing.
NARR: The elevated Central Artery has been gone now for most of my life. And it's been replaced by seventeen acres of parks and open space, winding through the heart of the city. There are benches, murals, memorials, an old timey carousel, a beer garden -- flowers for the bees, and fountains for the kids...
Companies and jobs have flowed into the land around the project. An old building that once had a solid brick wall, has added windows and balconies, because its inhabitants now want to look outside.
So how is it that all those battles -- all the fury and controversy -- could lead to this? And what does that say about the way we build things?
Ian Coss: I sometimes wonder when I'm down here, how many of these people... Have any idea that there was once an elevated highway where we're standing? Yeah,
Fred Salvucci: I think people fortunately have forgotten.
NARR: From GBH News this is the Big Dig, a study in American infrastructure. I'm Ian Coss.
This is Part 9: Hearts and Minds.
Pre-RollNARR: The word ‘boondoggle’ was coined by a boy scout troop in Rochester, NY, in the late 1920s. ‘Boondoggling’ referred to a common handicraft, the kind where you weave together strips of different colored leather to make bracelets, key-chains, or in this case, little ornaments for your boy scout uniform. But the word 'boondoogle' gained a new meaning in 1935; that’s when it appeared on the front page of the New York Times. In all caps, the paper declared that $3 million dollars of federal relief money was being spent teaching arts and crafts to the unemployed. Right below that headline, was the ominous phrase: “Boondoggles Made.”
NARR: The article went on to describe how this same program paid for lessons in “eurythmic dancing” and elementary Latin, but the image that stuck was of course, the boondoggle. The word became a symbol of waste and excess – a warning that says: 'don’t even bother trying.'
In a speech, Franklin Roosevelt optimistically imagined the day when the boondoggle would come to represent the exact opposite: that in the future it would be a symbol of all the good that government can do – a symbol of ingenuity, accomplishment, compassion.
NARR: That never happened. The Big Dig though, got its shot at redemption.
Randy Tow: Hello, Ian?
Ian Coss: Yes, yes, it's Ian.
Randy Tow: You doing?
Ian Coss: Good. Is this Randi?
Randy Tow: Yes, it is Ian.
NARR: But even now, the redemption of the Big Dig is complicated.
Ian Coss: So, um, just to start, could you introduce yourself? Tell me who you are and where you're from.
Randy Tow: Oh, my name is Randy Tow. I'm originally from. Boston Chinatown
NARR: In the 1950s and 60s, when Boston was building its downtown highways, one of the neighborhoods in their path was Chinatown.
Ian Coss: Do you have memories of Chinatown as a kid?
Randy Tow: Oh sure, I grew up there and uh, see Chinatown is very, very unique. It's not the biggest Chinatown in the U.S., but it's a very close knit community. Nobody ever locked the doors or anything. Everybody knew each other by their first name, because most of the people knew each other way back from China
Ian Coss: Oh really?
Randy Tow: Yeah, so most of the people that came over at that time were all from the same villages in China.
NARR: Tow remembers how when he'd meet people in the street, they would simply ask what village you were from, because everyone -- including his family -- came from that same region in the south of China.
Randy Tow: It was Romanized to Canton, China. Now it's called Guangdong.
NARR: They even had a local Volleyball league -- Cantonese style.
Randy Tow: we play nine man volleyball.
NARR: Every few years, on Labor Day, there would be a grand tournament, with teams from DC, New York, sometimes even Toronto or Chicago. Tow says that other than Lunar New Year, this was the biggest event on the local calendar. The neighborhood would rope off the streets and turn them into volleyball courts. Cantonese speakers from around the country would flood into town.
New York was always the team to beat -- they had the biggest community to draw from, sometimes they even had ex-pro players straight from China -- but once, just once in his eighty years of life, when Randy Tow was captain of the Boston squad, they pulled out a win.
Randy Tow: To this day, I don't know how we did it, but we did. That was the one and only championship Boston ever won in all these years I ever remember, including now.
Ian Coss: Wow.
Randy Tow: So…Again, it's such a close knit community that every time we get together, we'll be talking about that. Because we were all we'll see that all the time. We'll just hang around Boston Chinatown, see, so you can never replace that. Nowadays, that doesn't exist anymore.
NARR: Tow remembers the notices going out in the early 1960s: you need to vacate your home to make way for the highway. The whole block was being taken: his home, his grandparents home, and his grandparent's shop.
Randy Tow: So it really destroyed our community as such as we knew it.
NARR: This was before the anti-highway movement had started over in Cambridge, and also, this was not Cambridge. It was Chinatown. The family waited as long as possible, hoping something might change, then they took the buyout and left the neighborhood for good.
Randy Tow: And seriously, my mother never got over that after all these years. When we visited my mother, we would never mention this, because if we do, she would get all upset, and here we go again, you know.
NARR: Tow wound up living on a street filled with strangers. His father started sleeping on a cot in the attic of the Chinese restaurant where he worked, because he had no way to get back home after a late shift. Things that were once a walk down the street -- his grandparents, volleyball practice -- were now a trek across town. All those fine strands that make up a community had been stretched, re-routed, or simply severed.
Randy Tow: All my friends that I grew up with are living in the suburbs of Boston, actually. So now the Chinatown neighborhood is no longer what it was. Everybody is gone.
ARCHIVAL: Good afternoon everyone. Welcome to the Ribbon cutting of 66 Hudson at one Greenway, a rebirth
NARR: As the Big Dig wrapped up in the early 2000s, it raised the possibility that some of the land taken from Chinatown could now be restored -- including a parcel on the very street that Tow grew up on. The on-ramp to the highway would still be there, but now, homes could be there too. At neighborhood meetings, activists talked about "repatriating the exiles," even rebuilding the old rowhouses where Tow and his family had once lived.
And while the rowhouses were not rebuilt, the parcel was developed into affordable housing. There was even a chance for original residents of the street to get spots in the building, but Tow didn't bother trying. His mother was in her 90s. His kids were grown, his community wasn't there anymore.
Randy Tow: It was a good gesture. It was something better than not having anything you can never really replace a neighborhood. Nor is anybody asking you to do it. It's impossible.
Ian Coss: When you do visit Chinatown today, do you ever walk by that building?
Randy Tow: I I don't go up that far, but I drive by it a lot. I go up that ramp. When I go right up on that ramp, I'm going over my house.
Ian Coss: Right. To get back on the highway.
Randy Tow: Yeah, the side that you're going up. It was exactly over my house
Ian Coss: So it's still every time you drive through there you those memories come back to you.
Randy Tow: Oh, sure.
NARR: The Interstate Era did more than just break neighborhoods and communities. It also broke trust -- public trust that when it came to infrastructure the state knew what it was doing. But the past is not easily undone, and trust is like a neighborhood: fast to break, very slow to re-build.
When Fred Salvucci set out to build the Big Dig, there were really two parallel missions as I see it. One was to restore the city, physically -- and that undeniably happened. The other was to restore the public trust -- restore our faith that the government can build with compassion and vision. To inspire us to invest further, dream bigger. And that proved to be the far more difficult task. Somehow, the Big Dig delivered on its promises and yet, if anything, it left the public even more cynical about our capacity to build.
Which brings me to a second story, one that's more forward looking.
Laura Bears: Looks like it'll be, possibly a 50 minute ride instead of normally 35. Hmm.
Ian Coss: But you're gonna take us through the big dig? Take
Laura Bears: you through the big dig! Alright, let's do it.
NARR: I've been meaning to share a driver's perspective on all this, because that is what we spent all those billions of dollars on: a road. A way to get around. So how's that working out?
Laura Bears: I have faith. I'm gonna take care of the, the mess
NARR: Laura Bears has always had a pretty rough commute. She lives on the north side of Boston, but she works about 20 miles away on the south side of Boston.
That means driving through the city, on the Central Artery, at rush hour. In full disclosure, Laura is also family -- she's my wife's aunt. But for now she is our sample size of one survey of Boston commuters.
NARR: So Laura's commute used to look very different. In the early 1990s, before the Big Dig, she didn't own a car. That meant taking a bus to a train to another train to another bus.
Ian Coss: How long did that whole ride take?
Laura Bears: In the mornings it could take an hour and a half.
NARR: An hour and a half, one way.
Laura Bears: But it was, it was long, very long. And actually had to stop that because when I was, um, pregnant with my, first child, um I couldn't ride all the way home without having to stop to go to the ladies' room. So I went to stop it downtown crossing and, and go into fine basement or Macy's to use the ladies' room cuz that was the only, you know, you just like, you're pregnant. You're very, when you're very pregnant. That's the way you go. At that point I was like, I think I need a car now.
NARR: Laura got a used Ford Contour -- one of those 90s sedans with a kind of soft bubbly look. Then, just as the Big Dig was beginning, Laura and her Contour joined the ranks of Boston traffic.
Laura Bears: Every day, five days a week
NARR: After her son was born, he went to daycare down near her work, so the two of them would commute together along the elevated Central Artery -- one of the nearly 200,000 cars weaving through its narrow lanes and constant on and off-ramps. But no matter how bad things got up there, she didn't dare get off the Artery.
Laura Bears: I have no internal gps. Mm-hmm. I literally have no internal gps.
NARR: The maze of streets below was totally unfamiliar -- she'd never really driven in Boston before. And with her infant son in the backseat, no cellphone, no GPS, the idea of getting lost down there became paralyzing.
Laura Bears: And I remember, you know, about a year and a half after my son was born, I was driving home sitting in traffic, like normal, just like sitting in traffic. A lot of traffic inching along, inching along, and I felt a very funny feeling like at the bottom of my feet. And it traveled. This energy traveled up my body kind of slowly, but I'm measuring it as it's coming, as it's moving. And boom, it went out of my head.
Laura Bears: A car in front of me had blinker going on. Right to turn right, right, right, right, right. And I was like, geez, look at this. This traffic is just terrible. I'm following that guy. I don't care where he's going. I'm following him and I gotta get home another way because sitting in this traffic is just ludicrous.
NARR: She later figured that it must have been some kind of postpartum anxiety that was holding her back. But whatever it was, it left her that day.
Laura Bears: And from then on, I didn't sit in the big dig traffic anymore.
NARR: She would cut through the Seaport, through the North End, the West End, anything that got her off the Artery and away from the construction. Every commute was a puzzle to be solved by Laura and the Contour and her infant son bouncing along in the back seat.
NARR: And it went on that way for ten long years, all through the Big Dig, until the Tip O'Neill Tunnel finally opened, and Laura got to enjoy the payoff.
Ian Coss: Can you sort of describe where we are and what's going on? So we're on
Laura Bears: the Zakim Bridge and we're just about to enter the tunnel.
NARR: As we cross the peak of that once-controversial bridge over the Charles River, the road dives down before us at a pretty steep grade. We can see a row of buildings rushing forward, as if the highway is a big dead-end street. But just below those buildings is our passageway: white tile walls, fluorescent lights. I wouldn't say it's gleaming, but it's inviting.
Ian Coss: And we are now underground. Underground! How fast are we moving?
Laura Bears: Um, 60. I'm over the speed limit. Don't report me. It's 45, I think, in here.
Ian Coss: 6:46 in the morning, weekday. Yep. Headed right through downtown, 60 miles an hour. Yep,
Laura Bears: that's, yeah. This is pretty standard for here for me. At this hour.
NARR: In the new artery, lanes are added and taken away with each exit, so cars aren't scrambling to merge all the time. And if you're going over to the airport, the new harbor tunnel makes that way easier.
So we continue at a good clip under the North End, where I met Salvucci, then the tunnel rises up to get over the Blue Line, dips again to cross under the Red Line. A right turn, a left turn, and then we see the light.
Laura Bears: literal light at the end of the tunnel.
Ian Coss: So how long did that take us? About two minutes to do the whole tunnel?
Laura Bears: I don't know. I wasn't paying attention. Maybe.
Ian Coss: Yeah, worth 15 billion. Yes.
Laura Bears: For all these people who drive daily on both sides, I think yes.
NARR: For Laura Bears, and I'm sure many others, the Big Dig has improved her quality of life – measurably. The traffic is better. And people above ground don't have to look at it. But it’s still traffic, still people like us in personal buckets of steel, burning gas and pumping AC, and getting in accidents.
Fred Salvucci always knew that investing in more road capacity could only get us so far -- that the real solution required making similar investments in mass transit -- creating a bus and train system that someone like Laura Bears would actually want to ride to work every day.
Ian Coss: So where's the train from here?
Laura Bears: I am going to drive you there. Is that, is that okay? Yeah, yeah, yeah, but I have to put it in.
NARR: After our brisk 40 minute drive, Laura drops me at the last station on the Red Line, where I get to experience that alternate commuting option – the one we didn’t spend $15 billion on. If I’m not mistaken, I caught a ride on one of the older trains in the whole fleet, from about 1970, meaning it was built before the Big Dig was a glimmer in Fred Salvucci's eye. The whole transit system here -- what we call 'The T' -- is currently riddled with slow zones, after decades of underinvestment and more recently, a series of derailments and safety incidents. It's so slow, I'm pretty sure that in some places, I could have jogged alongside that train and kept up. The whole trip home took almost two hours.
I’ve been thinking about why – after making this historic investment in our road system – we could then allow our transit system to languish so badly. And wondering too if maybe it has something to do with the Big Dig, not because of the cost or debt, but because of that sour taste in our mouths.
Ian Coss: Are former Secretaries of Transportation officially allowed to jaywalk?
Fred Salvucci: No, but I'm a Bostonian, so. It's an inherent right of Boston born people to jaywalk.
NARR: So on the day of our walk, I asked Salvucci about this notion I mentioned, that the Big Dig had restored our city, but not our faith -- and maybe that's why those other investments never came.
Fred Salvucci: Yeah, I think that's true. I think it's a tragedy,
NARR: In typical Salvucci fashion, he offered up a historical survey of the transit commitments that had been promised, and how they were ignored by Democrats and Republicans alike. But then, he told me this story that I keep thinking about. It's a story he heard once about the Italian mystic St Francis, who like Salvucci got his start as a bricklayer, of sorts.
Fred Salvucci: God came to him in a dream and said, Francis, you have to build a church. So Francis woke up the next day and said, oh, instructions from the big guy, I have to build a church. So he began gathering stones, piling them up, digging a foundation.
NARR: Francis worked and worked -- building the church all on his own -- and when it was finally done he laid down to rest. That same night, there was a terrible thunderstorm; the church was struck by lightning and destroyed. But Francis, once again saw God in his dreams.
Fred Salvucci: And he says, what is, what's this weird joke? I do what you tell me, I work in the hot sun, I build your church, and you... Destroy it with an electric storm, like, all these months of work, poof, it's all gone, and, uh, god, god sends to Francis, no, no, the church that you have to build is not a church of stones. You have to build a church in the hearts and the minds of the people. That's the only church that matters and will last.
NARR: So maybe that's the real question here at the end: not what the Big Dig built in stone, but what it built in our hearts and minds. Because when it comes to the future of infrastructure in this country -- that is what really counts.
Mid-RollNARR: I wish I could say the story of the Big Dig is dated, obsolete. That we learned the lessons already and got better at building infrastructure. The sad truth is: I don't think we have.
So at some point I started asking people.
Ian Coss: what lessons do you think we should take from the bake dig?
NARR: What are the lessons we should take away from all this?
Ian Coss: Are there any big lessons that you take away
lessons you draw from this story
what do you think are the lessons from the big dig
what's the lesson there for you?
what are the lessons that you draw
Are there any lessons that you feel like you learned
Are there any lessons that you take
Are there any lessons that you take
what are the lessons you draw?
big takeaways, big lessons
Was there a takeaway for you
NARR: When we look at the big projects of our own time -- at the bipartisan infrastructure bill, at the push for renewable energy, at climate mitigation...
Rick Dimino: if there's one paramount lesson learned,
NARR: What can we learn from the Big Dig?
Pat Moynihan: Who knows?
NARR: As you can imagine, there's quite a range.
Tony V: I don't know if the word shit show means anything to you
NARR: There were definitely people who held this project up as the cautionary tale, an example of what not to do.
Alan Altshuler: I don't think it's a model
Ann Hershfang: it was poorly managed
Jeff Cohen: gross Buffoonery
NARR: People who told me that the project was riddled with waste and fraud.
Dan Johnston: corrupt from the top down
NARR: That it was too big for its own good.
Fred Wyshak: It was unmanageable
NARR: And at the end of the day, it cost way more than it should have...
Brian Donnelly: I mean, it's an embarrassment how much it cost.
NARR: But there were also people -- sometimes the same people -- who told me, just look at the results.
Doug McGarrah: it was completely transformative
Mary Jeka: transformative
NARR: They told me that clearly, this project was misunderstood all along.
Laura Brown: Mis portrayed in some ways
NARR: when in fact, it was well-managed.
Tom Palmer: it wasn't corruption and it wasn't theft.
NARR: It was just really hard.
Frank Martinez: It was tough, it was tough.
NARR: For a project its size, the Big Dig had an excellent safety record. It was built by all union labor. It was nominated for engineering awards. We just didn't want to see it.
Peter Zuk: It's not like this was a secret.
NARR: But maybe this was a success story.
Bill Womack: Not everything's peaches and cream, but you stick together and you get or done
NARR: And more than that, I was told, it was a bargain. For what we got, the price was right.
Jim Aloisi: Guess what? It's expensive. Get over it, is my view.
NARR: There were people who told me that the big takeaway was: we just needed more oversight so that the public could see and trust that their money was being well spent.
Raphael Lewis: You better watch it like a hawk.
NARR: That what we needed was more transparency.
Rick Dimino: transparency
Martha Coakley: transparency
NARR: And then on the other hand...
Joe Allegro: all the oversight in the world isn't gonna change what you do day to day.
NARR: Maybe there was too much oversight, too many people looking over too many shoulders, all trying to play gotcha and score cheap political points.
Jim Kerasiotes: The process stinks.
NARR: I heard that the media was too aggressive, that it fed those negative narratives...
Anthony Flint: Perhaps overly cynical.
NARR: And that the media should have been more aggressive...
Charlie Sennott: Be the watchdog bring truth to power
NARR: That there was too much citizen input...or maybe, not enough...Too much environmental mitigation...or maybe, not enough...
You really can learn whatever lesson you want from the Big Dig.
NARR: But here's where I'll come down. I do think the Big Dig can be a point of inspiration for the necessary and ambitious projects ahead. The fact that our leaders did pass this idea along for all those decades, kept it alive, and got it done, is inspiring. We will need that kind of perseverance. But we have to pay attention to what got lost along the way: the vision; the story.
Because perception matters. The narrative matters. If every major investment in our built environment leaves us feeling exhausted, burned -- betrayed even -- then we will never make the investments we need to transform our energy system, to improve our transportation system, to protect our homes and shorelines from the effects of climate change. Trust, belief, purpose, idealism -- the church of hearts and minds -- they have to be part of the mix.
The rest -- the technical stuff -- that we can get better at. And I do think this story can offer some ideas there too. We can get better at accurately estimating costs and anticipating the risks so there are fewer surprises. We can get better at funding projects in a predictable way so that the planning and construction process are not constantly warped by politics. We can get better at doing environmental permitting quickly and fairly, better at structuring contracts with private companies so their incentives are properly aligned, better at structuring management so that we have competent leadership and accountability. We can get all that right, but if we can't tell the story of what we're doing -- if the public doesn't feel part of it -- then the best plans and contracts won't be worth the paper they're written on.
NARR: One morning last December, I set my alarm to 4:30 am. It was twenty four degrees outside, the sky didn't have even a hint of light, and the sidewalk was crusted with half an inch of snow. But as I walked through my neighborhood and up a hill, I started hearing signs of life: people crowded around the entrance of a brand new train station.
It was opening day for the long-awaited Green Line Extension -- about four miles of new light rail that fills in a big void in our transit system. If you want to be technical about it, this project is part of the Big Dig. It was one of those transit improvements that was promised over thirty years ago as part of the environmental impact statement. Now, the first train was pulling into the station right on schedule.
Sure it was decades late, and way more expensive than the original estimates. And yes, the T was coming off a terrible year in which a train had caught fire on a bridge, forcing one passenger to jump out the window into the river, but hey, no one seemed to be sweating the details now.
There was a marching band playing at one station, and the little grocery shop there had a sale on all green vegetables.
AMBI: Oh, what'd you got here? It says, uh, first stride. You like fall 12 20 22?
NARR: An employee from the T was on the train passing out commemorative buttons. Nothing official, just something they had taken upon themselves to do, because they believed in this project.
AMBI: It's like you wake up at 4:00 AM and so many years in the making
NARR: The buttons were gone in minutes.
AMBI: do you like a button? Yeah. Would you mind? Yeah, absolutely. After four. Thank you so much. Could I take, can I also, yeah. Thank you. Thank you.
NARR: And I have to say, it felt good to be on this cramped train with a bunch of giddy passengers. Maybe more than that, it felt good to feel good about a big project that our city had accomplished. To put the cynicism away for a day and just enjoy the ride.
AMBI: So how would you rate your faith today in America's capacity to build infrastructure? Uh,
NARR: Beatrix, the T employee, was feeling hopeful. Cautiously hopeful that this project will be the one that inspires us to invest in the next project, and the one after that..
AMBI: I don't know if that's gonna pan out that, that way. That's just my hopes. You're
NARR: So here's to hoping, and hey -- for those of us who did squeeze onto that first train, drowsy and bleary eyed, at least the ride was free.
AMBI: Oh, I think I'm gonna get off here. All right. Thanks again for the button. Well, what, what's your name again? Sorry? My name's Ian. Ian. Ian. Cost Nice to meet you. Is it okay if I use this recording in my podcast? Yeah. Yeah. By all means, yeah. All right. Have a good ride today.
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 this episode from Jeb Sharp. Mei Lei is the project manager, and the Executive Producer is Devin Maverick Robins.
. I want to thank just a few of the many people who advised and supported me in the making of this series: Noam Hassenfeld, Avery Trufelman, Kelsey Tyssowski and Julie Shapiro. I also want to acknowledge, even though I can’t possibly name them all, the incredible teams of people at GBH and PRX who believed in this project and helped make sure people would actually listen.
Archival audio this episode is courtesy of Boston City TV
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.