We're Burying Billions under Boston

Look, I don't like the so-called Big Dig any more than you do.

The Big Dig is officially the Central Artery Project, construction of an eight lane underground highway through the middle of downtown Boston.

And the cost is astounding. Astounding and increasing.

Right now it's estimated that the Big Dig will cost about $12.2-billion. That's up, way up, from cost estimates of $10.8-billion four years ago. Way, way, way up from cost estimates of $5-billion when Governor Weld assumed office nine years ago. And it may get worse in the next few years as the project is completed.

Remember, it's the biggest construction project in the country. And it is the most expensive project in the country. Probably the world.

We can't back out now. This project was first invented a decade ago, in the Dukakis administration. Now, frankly, we're stuck with it. We are in the busiest 18 months of the project, spending $4-million a day. Some 4,000 people a day are on the job at the Big Dig.

Obviously, burying the expressway won't have much impact on you or on me. Unless, that is, we lose our Chapter 90 money, money for roads and bridges, or funding for local projects. And, oh yes, we will be paying for it.

Paying for it. That's what we have to come up with. The extra billion or two in additional costs, at a time when the Federal money coming into the state for the project is at the lowest ever.

The administration and legislature have to figure out what to do now. Borrow, and make our grandchildren pay for it for the next 50 years? Pay for it out of our current operating funds, or savings accounts, since the economy is the best it's ever been? Sell the naming rights to, say, the fancy new bridge? Rise tolls on the turnpike or add tolls to north/south routes around Boston? All of the above?

We have to come up with a solution, probably this month, and it won't be easy.

The other question. Will local projects suffer?

Executive Office of Transportation and Construction gurus--Secretary Kevin Sullivan and Commissioner Matthew Amorello-called a group of legislators together last week to assure us that local roads and bridges remain a top priority of the Mass Highway Department. We've heard the same from Governor Cellucci and Administration and Finance Secretary Andrew Natsios.

They all noted that annual spending on local road and bridge projects is more than $600,000,000 a year, independent of the Big Dig.

Since 1991, Mass Highway has awarded 2,200 projects, worth some $2.8- billion and authorized more than $1-billion for Chapter 90 funds for cities and towns.

We in Westfield are in District Two of Mass Highway, and have 14 percent of the total road miles in the state. This area got 11 percent of the total construction project dollars.

Amorello and Sullivan promised me that spending for the statewide road and bridge program for the next five years will equal or exceed the amount spent over the past five years, and that projects would be spread evenly across the commonwealth.

They promised that the administration would use state funds to replace the loss of Federal funds.

And, they said, the Big Dig has NOT taken funds away from local road and bridge projects.

Well, show me the money, as they say.

Okay...some examples. Westfield's Northwest Road Bridge replacement. The state spent $761,771. And, finally, finished the job last November. It was one of the ten most recently completed projects in Hampden County (the ten were worth $18.3-million in state money).

Another 17 projects, worth a combined $54-million, that are underway in Hampden County include $900,000 for the Summit Lock Industrial Park.

Another 25 projects are in the design stage in Hampden County. To the tune of $26.2-million. Including Westfield's railtrail design, at $262,750.

Chapter 90 projects include about $201,000 for resurfacing various roadways in Westfield. And, speaking of Chapter 90, Westfield has received about $6.18-million since 1991.

Is it enough? No. It's never enough. Our bridges and roads have been neglected for years. Decades. But Amorello and Sullivan, Cellucci and Natsios, have promised to keep the road money coming. I plan to make them keep their promises.

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