Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Big Dig, part 1

The Big Dig (source)
The most expensive highway project in the United States was built here in Boston. It was nicknamed "The Big Dig", a name that became notorious and synonymous with massive cost overruns and delays.

So when the highway segments were finally completed, many people were eager to put the whole mess behind. The cost was high, but at least we had some shiny new bridges and tunnels to use. Also, the space formerly occupied by the Central Artery had become open land, with grass and marginal roads.

However, the Big Dig did not live up to its promise, and may have made some traffic patterns worse. The Boston Globe conducted an investigation and published an article in November 2008:
Ultimately, many motorists going to and from the suburbs at peak rush hours are spending more time stuck in traffic, not less. The phenomenon is a result of a surge in drivers crowding onto highways - an ironic byproduct of the Big Dig's success in clearing away downtown traffic jams.
The State of Massachusetts has spent $15 billion on a fight against "The Fundamental Law of Highway Congestion," and the Law won. The original paper was published in 1962. There has been plenty of research over the years on this subject, and there was no excuse to be unaware of the dilemma by the early 90s when the Big Dig planning was underway.
Proposed Green Line extension

The trouble does not end there. The State agreed to mitigate the pollution from the additional vehicle traffic induced by the Big Dig. To this end they made legally binding promises to build several public transportation projects, including: Green Line extension to Medford, Arborway trolley restoration, and Red-Blue subway connection. However, the MBTA has weaseled out of Arborway by substituting improvements to the 39 bus, and has moved on the other projects only when threatened by lawsuits. The Green Line extension was recently pushed back, yet again, causing widespread anger among residents and elected officials. The State government apparently thinks that, with the completion of the highway segments, it can brush off any further obligations to the citizens.

In 2000, in an attempt to fix the finances of the MBTA, legislation called "Forward Funding" was passed. This law dedicated 20% of sales tax revenue to the MBTA, and in exchange, charged the agency with issuing and paying its own debt. People were assured that this would be sufficient to run operations. However, the legislature also did something sneaky: they moved $3.3 billion of debt from the State onto the books of the MBTA. Part of that debt was from the Big Dig. The reformed agency was "[Re-]Born Broke:"
Legal obligations debt ($1.688 billion) corresponds to state implementation plan (SIP) commitment projects.  These were public transportation projects the state agreed to build as part of the Big Dig.  [...] The State also transferred the responsibility to finish many SIP commitment projects, and the T borrowed to do so.  In 2007 the State agreed to re-assume responsibility for outstanding SIP projects, but not the debt for such projects borrowed before 2007.
In other words, the State of Massachusetts had made a binding agreement with the citizens that, among other things, it would improve the public transit systems managed by the MBTA in exchange for constructing the Big Dig. But less than ten years later, Beacon Hill was able to completely twist the logic of this agreement around. Now the MBTA alone is being forced to bear the debt burden that the State was supposed to pay  in the first place. And the revenues from sales tax never met the original expectations. The result is a system that is breaking down and cannot pay for desperately needed repairs. We are looking at possible fare increases, up to an outrageous $3.25 per ride using CharlieTicket, and severe service cuts. This plan could demolish ridership on the system, leading to a spiral of further deficits. And if that happened, it would not only hobble mass transit, but also the entire economy in the Metro Boston region which depends on the T.

See also: The Big Dig, part 2

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