date published: August 19, 2002

Get a look beneath the streets of Boston as the Big Dig offers a free public tour of the Central Artery Tunnel
by Andrew King


August 25
from noon–5 p.m.
Departing from
185 Kneeland St.

You can’t miss the Big Dig. For the past 11 years, Bostonians have been co-existing next to cranes the size of skyscrapers, giant bulldozers, endless jackhammers and those abysmal “glory holes” that seem to threaten to swallow up the city. These alterations have so far caused headaches and confusion for motorists and pedestrians, with little practical payoff.

But on August 25, visitors are invited to step beneath the surface of this gargantuan undertaking for a tour of the nearly finished Central Artery Tunnel in the “New Underground Highway Walk.” This is the second such public offering, coming on the heels of the Mother’s Day tour of the new Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge, which became an instant city landmark as soon as it started going up (half of the bridge is scheduled to open to traffic in October). Pedestrians were given the chance to peruse the bridge on foot—a rare opportunity considering that foot traffic will be barred on the bridge after it opens due to federal highway law. Despite nasty weather, the May event attracted hundreds of thousands of sightseers. And it was considered a positive sign that people were keenly interested in the Big Dig beyond its role as a magnet for criticism.

The Big Dig is recognized as one of the most complex and technically challenging construction projects in American history. When completed, it will fix the Central Artery, the six-lane elevated section of I-93 that runs through downtown—one of the most congested roadways in America, where traffic crawls for more than 10 hours a day. It was built in 1959 to sustain 75,000 cars a day, but now the volume is almost three times that amount. Then there’s the matter of the highway’s shear intrusiveness. It effectively severed the connection between downtown and the waterfront, while casting shadows on businesses below. No one will be sad to see the Central Artery go underground.
At the northern terminus of the tunnel is the gem of the Big Dig—the new Zakim Bridge, a sprawling, illuminated, cable-stayed masterpiece crossing the Mystic River that echoes the nearby Bunker Hill Memorial in Charlestown.

But with cost overruns ballooning like the salaries of professional athletes and the schedule as nebulous as a George W. Bush speech, it has been difficult to see “the big picture” amid all the chaos.
Nevertheless, that is slowly beginning to change. In addition to weekly, behind-the-scenes tours of the Big Dig grounds (which have to be booked months in advance), recent public unveilings of the partially complete project have generated much-needed enthusiasm.

The August 25 tour of the Central Artery Tunnel was conceived on the heels of such events and is expected to attract tens of thousands (though probably not as many as the bridge tour).
During a recent press conference at Big Dig headquarters, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Massachusetts Turnpike Authority Chairman Matthew Amorello promoted the tour. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to explore this engineering and construction marvel,” Amorello said. The tunnel, which runs 1.5 miles and will create 30 acres of new green space, goes as deep as 120 feet below the surface in some spots, including the section near South Station where the public will complete its five-block tour.

The magnitude of the undertaking has set new standards for man’s power to move and reconstruct the urban environment. Amorello and Mayor Menino, perhaps unwittingly recalling the sentiments of F.D.R. in his dedication of the Hoover Dam back in the 1930s, referred to the 5,000-plus Big Dig workers as “heroes.” After all, they had to remove four million cubic tons of earth without grinding the city to a halt.

So, on August 25, the public is given the opportunity to survey the collaborative efforts of the engineers, construction workers and state officials who’ve been restructuring the downtown landscape of one of the oldest and most beautiful cities in the country. To some, the opportunity has a mythic quality to it because, once the tunnel opens to cars, there will never be another chance to experience it on foot. The tour starts at noon and departs from the Big Dig headquarters at 185 Kneeland Street by South Station. It then heads underground into the immense, barren tunnel that will before long be swarming with heavy traffic.

The walk is free and open to the public. There are no tickets or reservations. Large bags, backpacks and packages are not permitted. Cameras are welcome. Public transportation is recommended. Take the MBTA’s Red Line to South Station. Shuttle buses run from North Station to 185 Kneeland Street. Officials will also be on hand to answer questions.

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