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Downtown View: Infrastructure. Investment. Interesting.

Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Boston boldly invested in itself. It cleaned up the harbor, spending $3.8 billion on the Deer Island Treatment Plant alone. It spent from $650 to $850 million, depending on how you count, in state money for the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, said spokesman Nate Little. Fifteen billion dollars of federal and state money went to the CA/T project, aka Big Dig, which buried the Central Artery and created the Ted Williams Tunnel.

These efforts, mostly completed by 2004, have paid off in improving Bostonians’ quality of life. We can swim in Boston Harbor without worrying about the “floatables” that sailed past when a friend of mine finished first in the 1977 Boston Light Swim. While our underground automobile trip through the Financial District is little faster than when we took the overhead road, neighbors no longer have to see or hear the stalled traffic. Instead we can take a beautiful walk through a maturing Greenway. Boston turned around and became the waterfront city it had been and was meant to be

Charlestown gained two lovely parks instead of the overhead tangle where I-93 and I-95 once met in possibly the most difficult intersection ever of two interstate highways. (We taught a daughter to drive by guiding her there from Leverett Circle, theorizing that she’d better know how to drive like a Boston driver.)

North End and Waterfront residents are no longer cut off from the rest of the city by an overhead road. And the rest of the city can now get to those neighborhoods with pleasure.

In anticipation of the Big Dig, utility companies relocated and upgraded underground connections, giving Boston a competitive edge over other older cities, recalls Bob O’Brien, who lived through it all when he served as executive director of the Downtown North Association.

The whole thing has provided an astounding boost to Boston’s economy. The Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, along with the Back Bay’s renovated Hynes, will contribute $750 million in benefits in fiscal 2017, said Little. The BRA calculates that projects approved since 2005 in the Seaport District total more than $6 billion in investment.

I’ve made my own calculations along the Big Dig with O’Brien’s help. In the dozen or so years since public projects were completed, private real estate investment totaling about $15 billion has built buildings or has them under construction or planned around the buried Central Artery. (If you want my list, email me at, and I’ll send it to you.) That figure includes such projects as the InterContinental Hotel, built around a tunnel vent tower, the proposed Haymarket Hotel, and the condominiums at Boulevard. That project, which adds the phrase, “on the Greenway” to its name and famously incorporates one standing wall from an original Bulfinch building is one of several projects not starting from scratch. Minor changes—cutting windows into the side of buildings that once lay next to the highway, changing doorways so outdoor restaurants now spill out toward the Greenway—are small contributions to the economy that I’ve not included in my tally.

How much can be attributed to the Big Dig? A good economy and the fact that Boston’s industries are the ones thriving everywhere today have helped. Nevertheless, O’Brien said, in the Downtown North area, alone he calculates that the Big Dig is directly responsible for more than $5 billion of investment. This includes parcels built on land freed by removing the elevated highway’s underpinning—the rental apartments on Canal Street, The Victor, Related Beal’s affordable housing on Beverly Street. Larger development sites at the Nashua Street Residences and the Boston Garden would have been less appealing if the overhead road had remained, he said.

The depression of the Central Artery, which created the Rose Kennedy Greenway, was a major factor in the revitalization and redevelopment of the downtown waterfront district from the North End though South Station and it was unquestionably a major catalyst for renewal and redevelopment of both Downtown Boston and the West End,” O’Brien wrote in an email.

Not even the Great Recession slowed investment much.

Don Chiofaro said his team bought the Harbor Garage because of its location between the harbor and the Greenway. Tom O’Brien said HYM’s project from Cambridge Street to the Greenway was based on the aftereffects of the Big Dig. “It is absolutely true that the Big Dig made projects like ours conceivable,” he wrote in an email. “In fact, I would say the Big Dig helped turn the entire Downtown into a residential neighborhood.”

Other projects along the Greenway may have gotten built whether or not the road was buried. Perhaps the Seaport District would have occurred without the Ted Williams tunnel and the other two public investments, but I doubt it, and so does Chiofaro.

Chiofaro has been around a long time and sees the Seaport’s growth, in particular, as directly related to them.

Everyone is impressed with the speed at which the Seaport has developed, but it wasn’t speedy at all, he contends. “The fact is when I got out of high school in 1963, someone took me to Pier 4 and said this is the next great real estate opportunity,” he said. “I looked at the steel nets and asked, ‘What are those?’ They were the nets we used to close Boston Harbor during World War II.

“In 1968 when I got out of college, I was told that district was the next great real estate opportunity. Five years later I got out of business school and was told it was the next great real estate opportunity.

“Long story short is it didn’t happen fast. It took the momentum of the depression of the Central Artery and the cleanup of the harbor,” he said.

So now, when we’re complaining we don’t have enough money to build the Green Line extension, the train to the South Shore, the North-South Rail Link and other big projects, maybe we should look back at the 1980s leadership that got Boston into its happy situation today.

We’re a richer city and state than we were then. To say we can’t afford to make big investments in infrastructure is to not notice where it has gotten us before.

Downtown View is a column by newspaperwoman Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Karen now works from her home in downtown Boston and blogs at Please feel free to leave responses in the comments section below.

5 Replies to “Downtown View: Infrastructure. Investment. Interesting.

  1. Karen 1 to Karen 2

    Are you absolutely moronic? The Big Dig debt still hovers around 25 billion, All the investment in the world will not cover that number. Dukakis bet big and lost big, a highway THREE TIMES the size as the old elevated highway was built, because Dukakis wanted more BD transit mitigation money. Guess what, the Big Dig crew found every loophole to get around the mitigation, and stay-at-home advocates like Stephanie Pollack piled on half-baked mitigation promises like the Green Line Extension. We’re still paying for the 1980s!, and will do so until 2050!

  2. Wow. this is waaaay off factually. When a self-proclaimed Bostonian confuses I-95 with Route 1 (PS I-95 doesn’t run through Boston, never has) it shows just how much knowledge and research went into this editorial.

    1. Pat, maybe you haven’t lived here long enough to remember that piece of imaginative roadway, or maybe you misread the piece. It’s partly Route 1, but was labeled as I-95 by at least one sign because that’s where it was going. Before the Big Dig, there was an overhead intersection basically over Charlestown and just after Leverett Circle. You’d drive up to what was I-93 and be in the left lane and then immediately there was an exit to I 95 that went over the Tobin Bridge in the far right lane. It was labeled I-95 because it would eventually connect with that major highway even though it first went through that tortuous road you call accurately Route 1. It was unbelievable. If you wanted to go to Maine from Storrow Drive, you had a major challenge. Even seasoned drivers would miss it. It might have been in that funny book, “Wild in the Streets” but even if it wasn’t it was wild. Our daughter could not manage it and we were sympathetic. It was a little part of Boston lore that is now missing.
      I do want things cleaned up in Boston. But sometimes in doing so, we eradicate some of the funniest parts of living here. I’m sure it is all for the good, but nevertheless.
      But thank you for reading the column.


    2. Pat, Karen beat me to the punch, but yes, Route 1 at Charlestown was designated as I-95 until the Boston cross-thru and inner ring routes were cancelled. Its the only section of “I-95” to be built within the 128 beltway. If you weren’t around back then, its understandable that it would seem incorrect. I have lived in Boston my entire life and have seen countless firms mistaken the North-South Big Dig, ie Interstate 93, as Interstate 95, even to this day. Still, I agree with the commenting that Karen completely glossed over the cost aspects. In Boston, the Big Dig is debated to this day, but outside Boston, its simply known as the Dukakis Boondoogle. You sometimes see moments of honesty in Boston regarding the Big Dig, such as when Ed Rendell of PA called the Big Dig a boondoogle to Dukakis’ face. Still, the Big Dig is said in done, nothing we can do now but face the reality that is was a boondoogle. The more important topic is to make sure we do not repeat the same mistakes. The Green Line Extension is the perfect example. The GLX is debated in Boston, but outside of Boston, its seen as the biggest pending transit boondoogle, the highest cost per mile of many LRT system nationwide. The GLX is simply trying to emulate the Southwest Corridor, ie the Orange Line modernization, but with a trolley line, not a major subway line. Reality needs to set in soon

  3. I don’t think anyone objected to what the big dig would bring, but rather the cost and schedule overruns that this generation will never forget. But what’s done is done and the author is right that we still need to invest in our public infrastructure to maintain and improve our quality of city life. There is no arguing that Boston is doing well as a city – and not every project has to be a purple whale. Government has to step up and show they can be responsible. A new name on the BRA isn’t going to do that.

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