Rick Holmes: 'The ride ain't free'

Rick Holmes

I don't cross the Zakim-Bunker Hill Bridge much. I tend to travel east and west, on the old part of Boston's highway system, the part that charges tolls. The Zakim, the most attractive - make that the only attractive - part of the Big Dig, is free.

When I do cross the Zakim, I enjoy its clean white lines, its thick suspension cables, its towers designed to echo the Bunker Hill Monument it looks up to. I remember when Bruce Springsteen appeared on the span at the most upbeat - make that the only upbeat - Big Dig celebration. He was there to honor his late friend Lenny Zakim, the community activist, social catalyst and civic entrepreneur for whom the bridge was named. Bruce sang a haunting, acoustic version of "Thunder Road," and there wasn't a dry eye on the bridge:

"And my car's out back

If you're ready to take that long walk

From your front porch to my front seat

The door's open but the ride it ain't free"

The Boss got that part right. The ride ain't free.

We got a new pricetag last week for the highway system on which Springsteen stood. The Boston Globe did a new analysis of the finances for what is officially known as the Central Artery/Tunnel project, this one including the interest charges state politicians have been leaving out of their figures for the last decade or so.

Bottom line: The Big Dig is going to cost $22 billion, and we'll be paying for it until 2038.

I'd say by then the thing will be falling down, except that it's already falling down. A six-ton ceiling panel fell on a car and killed a woman before the project was even completed. Leaks in the tunnels have been a problem for years. Early this year, three weeks after the Central Artery/Tunnel project officially went out of business, officials estimated $100 million to fix defects and repair parts that were already crumbling.

Crossing the Zakim also reminds me of the day I climbed to the very top of one of those white towers. Big Dig construction was at its peak, and there were stairs and scaffolds going all the way up. I remember a cold wind whipping up there among the cables.

The tour was part of a Big Dig public relations initiative, intended to distract press and public from the bad news - management discord at the top, cost overruns we'll be paying off for decades - by focusing on the size and difficulty of the undertaking and its gee-whiz engineering.

All I could see was money being spent like it was going out of style.

The tour guide bragged about a massive outdoor refrigeration system designed to freeze the soil near the Fort Point Channel, so they could build a tunnel without disrupting trains going into South Station, the Post Office facility and Gillette, all entities that had made exacting demands on those building the highway in their midst. He showed me how every truck leaving a worksite had its tires hosed off, keeping a promise not to track dirt on to the pristine streets of South Boston.

That's part of where the money went. In the late '80s and early '90s, the Big Dig was seen as Tip O'Neill's gift to his home state, a giant infusion of federal cash in the midst of a deep recession. Everyone wanted their piece: the unions, looking for thousands of high-paid jobs with lots of overtime; the environmentalists, demanding acres of parks and millions in "mitigation;" the politically-connected neighborhoods of Southie, Eastie and the North End, demanding perks and discounts.

And, of course, the architects, engineers, contractors and the project manager, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, all of whom had lobbyists. They all knew how to bid low and use change orders to ratchet up the price.

They all knew how to push the politicians' buttons. Don't think about the cost, they said. Think about the jobs, the economic boost, the greenway reconnecting downtown Boston to the harbor, the smooth flow of traffic, the many ways the Big Dig could make Boston a "world class" city.

The project went through a succession of managers - Fred Salvucci, James Kerasiotes, Andrew Natsios, Matt Amorello. All had political connections; few left with their reputations intact. As the cost grew, they improvised. In 1996, the Legislature dropped the hot potato into the lap of the Mass. Turnpike, over the loud objections of MetroWest tollpayers. As the political support for paying the bills disappeared, Big Dig managers found ever more arcane ways to put it on the Pike's credit cards: revenue anticipation notes, 40-year bonds, "swaptions" with all the security of an adjustable-rate mortgage.

Who's to blame for this disaster? Four Republican governors, who were more interested in avoiding accountability and new taxes than acting as capable managers; the Democrats in the state Legislature, who found it easy to cave into the special interests and blame the governors when things went wrong; the Mass. Congressional delegation, who let Tip's pet project become synonymous with pork-barrel spending.

The list of who's not to blame is far shorter: Turnpike board members Christy Mihos and Jordan Levy blew the whistle so loudly Acting Gov. Jane Swift fired them; state Inspector General Robert Cerasoli sounded alarms that were barely heard; Federal Highway Administration auditors forced Gov. Paul Cellucci to fire Kerasiotes for covering up cost overruns; Sen. John McCain called hearings that resulted in a cap placed on federal contributions. Some of us out here in MetroWest were ranting about Boston's out-of-control project 15 years ago, when the Boston media were acting as cheerleaders instead of whistle-blowers.

McCain's move, while justified, didn't do Bay State taxpayers any favors. At the start, the feds were paying 90 percent of the Big Dig's costs, estimated to be a modest $2.35 billion in 1983. According to the Globe's figures, Massachusetts will end up paying 73 percent of the final $22 billion cost.

This long tragedy of errors resurfaced last week when the Patrick administration, recognizing that Amorello's "swaptions" deal may soon blow up in the Turnpike Authority's face, proposed another refinancing option that would save the Pike $200 million by backing the bonds with the state's credit rating.

State Treasurer Tim Cahill, outraged at the proposal, made the media rounds, acting like he had just discovered mismanagement of the Big Dig. He demanded reforms at the Pike before any "bailout." I'm all for reform, too. But anyone who thinks we can pay off a multi-billion dollar debt by laying off a few $60,000-a-year tolltakers is deluding himself. And when reforming the overuse of police details, a minor reform with wide public support, was suggested a few months ago, the governor and state legislators beat a hasty retreat at the first sight of police union lobbyists. Where was Cahill in that fight?

The Big Dig is done, but the debts and the repercussions go on and on. There's been some accountability: Two contractors - Powers Fasteners and Modern Continental, face federal manslaughter and fraud charges; Modern Continental, the project's largest contractor, has filed for bankruptcy; Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff settled with the state and federal prosecutors last January for $458 million.

That doesn't leave much hope for everyone's favorite option, getting the money back from the folks who took it. But the money has to come from somewhere. The Big Dig is draining highway repair money from every other needed project, as it has for more than a decade. Almost 80 percent of state highway workers are being paid with borrowed money, the Globe reports. When you factor in the interest, that means an $18-an-hour worker is costing the state $28.80 an hour.

There's another group that bears no blame for the Big Dig: people who pay tolls on the Mass. Pike. But the Big Dig debt is swamping the Pike, which raised tolls in January to make Big Dig bond payments and plans to do so again, maybe before the end of the year. Already, 58 cents of every dollar collected in tolls east of Rte. 128 goes to pay off the Big Dig bonds.

Patrick, Cahill and most of the other current players on Beacon Hill weren't around when Big Dig costs spiraled out of control, but the bills are landing on their desks. The test is whether they can show the judgment, fiscal responsibility and political courage their predecessors lacked.

They can start by accepting Springsteen's conclusion: The ride ain't free.

Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. ( He can be reached at