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‘The Big Dig,’ from GBH News, is a triumph of long-form audio journalism

The yellow is the path of what would become the Tip O’Neill Tunnel through the city. The red and blue are the Ted Williams Tunnel to Logan Airport. Photo (cc) from the 1990s by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

Over the past few months, news organizations in Boston have unveiled massive projects that dig deeply into traumatic (for very different reasons) historical events — The Boston Globe’s series on the 1989 murder of Carol Stuart at the hands of her husband, Charles, whose claim that the killing was carried out by a Black man turned the city upside-down; and GBH News’ nine-part podcast on the Big Dig.

I approached both projects with some trepidation, wondering what more I could learn about such well-known events. Well, the Globe’s series and podcast were incredibly well done, and we did learn a few things we didn’t previously know; I did not see the Stuart documentary film made in conjunction with the series, but I understand it’s essentially a shortened version of the podcast. “The Big Dig” (that is, the podcast, not the tunnels) was outstanding as well. I just finished listening to it a couple of days ago.

Once I started “The Big Dig,” I got hooked because of the premise. We live at a time when it seems that we’re unable to build great public projects. They come in way over budget, they’re flawed and NIMBYs are able to keep them tied up for years. The way host and co-producer Ian Coss frames the podcast is that the Big Dig is among the earliest and most expensive examples of that phenomenon. As we all know, it cost far more than initial projections, it was years late, it was fatally flawed (literally) and opponents were able to tie it up in red tape.

It’s a dilemma that Ezra Klein of The New York Times has talked about a lot on his own podcast. Rather than liberalism that fetishizes process and empowers stakeholders (and non-stakeholders) in such a way that it makes it too easy to stop progress, he argues, we need a “liberalism that builds.” That will also be the topic of his next book, co-authored with Derek Thompson.

“The Big Dig” begins with an unusually righteous example of process liberalism — the fight to stop the Southwest Corridor, led by a bright young bureaucrat named Fred Salvucci and eventually embraced by Gov. Frank Sargent. Salvucci, whose voice holds together the podcast throughout all nine episodes (he’s now 83), rose to become secretary of transportation under Gov. Michael Dukakis and embraced the two projects that eventually became known as the Big Dig: the Ted Williams Tunnel connecting the city with Logan Airport and the Tip O’Neill Tunnel, which enabled Salvucci’s dream of removing the elevated Central Artery and knitting the city back together.

It makes no sense for me to summarize the podcast except to say that Coss does a masterful job of including a tremendous amount of detail and human-interest stories while keeping it moving. We learn all about Scheme Z, a phrase that I thought I’d never hear out loud again. The greedy parking lot owner who held up the airport tunnel. The soil that was softer than expected. The flaws in the slurry walls. That said, I do have three reservations.

  • At the end of episode 8, the Big Dig is portrayed as unsafe. Although Coss tells us that the improperly installed ceiling tiles that led to the death of a driver, Milena Delvalle, were fixed, you do not get the impression that the overall project was safe. Yet in episode 9, the epilogue, we learn that the Big Dig finally can be seen as a success story without any indication of how those safety problems — including significant leaks in the slurry walls — were overcome.
  • A personal pique, but audio clips of my friend and former GBH colleague Emily Rooney, who hosted “Greater Boston” and “Beat the Press” for many years, are heard over and over, especially in episodes 7 and 8 — yet she is never named. Even Howie Carr is identified after one brief snippet of sound. Emily was the face and voice of GBH News for many years, and she should have gotten a mention.
  • The series closes with the launch of the Green Line Extension, which is presented as a triumphant last piece of the puzzle. “It felt good to feel good about a big project that our city had accomplished,” Coss says. “To put the cynicism away for a day and just enjoy the ride.” Now, I’m sure the lead time for the podcast was long, but, uh.

Overall, though, “The Big Dig” is an extraordinarily well-done overview of a project that kept the city tied up in knots for years, and that has been a success despite the astronomical cost — more than $24 billion by some estimates, or triple the $7.7 billion that was budgeted once the work had started, which was itself far higher than the original $3 billion price tag.

I hope GBH got the bounce they were looking for, because I’d like to see more such podcasts in the future. And if you’re new to Boston, you learn a lot about our city from both the Globe’s reporting on the Stuart case and from “The Big Dig.” Along with J. Anthony Lukas’ book “Common Ground,” the story of Boston’s desegregation crisis, these two works of extended narrative journalism have entered the library of essential Boston reading and listening.

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More Big Dig problems you don’t have to worry about

State officials want you to know that there is absolutely no reason for you to worry about the massive sinkhole that’s been discovered beneath a portion of the Big Dig. As a public service, Media Nation wants to remind you of other Big Dig problems — just teeny little glitches when you think about it — that you also don’t have to worry about:

  • Corroded 110-pound light fixtures that could fall on your car while you’re driving through, but that have been supposedly fixed. What? Sounds dangerous? Why, state transportation secretary Jeffrey Mullan didn’t even think it was necessary to tell Gov. Deval Patrick. Mullan is now leaving state government because he didn’t get a raise.
  • Leaks so extensive that they are beginning to damage the steel girders that support the Tip O’Neill Tunnel. Oops — sorry to sound like an alarmist. Our leaders want you to know that the leaks are the equivalent of the water that comes of “three garden hoses.” How can something you use to water your lawn possibly be dangerous?
  • Crashing three-ton ceiling panels of the sort that killed Milena Del Valle in 2006 as she and her husband were driving to Logan Airport. Again, no problems — they’re using better glue now or something.
If there are any other Big Dig problems that you absolutely, positively don’t have to worry about, please add them in the comments. Those are just the ones I could come up with off the top of my head.

For Amorello, a sad and ugly ending

Both the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald give the front-page treatment today to former Big Dig chief Matt Amorello. Each paper also features those horrendous mug shots of Amorello, barely conscious, being held by a police officer so that his picture could be taken.

There’s a case to be made that the photos shouldn’t have been published, but I’m not going to make it here. I suspect that any impulse to hold back disappeared when Amorello himself disappeared. He later turned up at UMass Medical Center.

The two dailies offer some details (here and here) on Amorello’s slide following his forced resignation in 2006, after a woman was killed when a concrete slab fell from a Big Dig tunnel onto her car. You will find nothing surprising in either story.

The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, whose coverage area includes Haverhill, where Amorello was arrested, sticks to what’s in the police report, as well as the observations of a few witnesses. “I’m just glad nobody got hurt,” Leonor Santos tells the paper. “We’re angry about him being drunk and driving. But thank God he’s OK. I’d rather he hit my car than the pole.”

Amorello easily could have killed someone. WBZ television and radio analyst Jon Keller writes that Amorello deserves compassion, but not forgiveness. I agree.

A project where nothing was done right

It leaks. A woman was killed when a concrete ceiling tile fell off and crushed her. It virtually bankrupted the state.

And now we learn, from Boston Globe reporter Matt Carroll, that the folks who gave us the Big Dig even managed to botch the little things in deadly ways: a pedestrian railing with unnecessarily sharp edges was installed too low, resulting in deaths and dismemberment.

Patrick’s snowstorm appointment

Gov. Deval Patrick must be extremely proud of appointing Joseph Aloisi as secretary of transportation. Otherwise, why would he have announced it in the midst of a snowstorm on the Friday before Christmas?

Patrick manages to work in the words “reforming” and “reform” in discussing Aloisi, which is exactly the first thought that springs to my mind upon learning that Aloisi collected $3 million in legal fees from the Big Dig.

At Blue Mass Group, David Kravitz writes:

[W]hen it’s the bottom of the ninth, two outs, two on, and the home team down by two (which strikes me as a fair description of where we are right now), who do you want at bat? Do you want a .205 hitter with a record of not many extra-base hits and a lot of strikeouts? ‘Cause that’s how Aloisi strikes me, based on his history with Kerasiotes, Amorello, and all the rest of it.

I think Kravitz is being kind, but we’ll see. What worries me is that House Speaker Sal DiMasi may be too weakened by the ongoing corruption investgation to act as a counterbalance.

DiMasi saved Patrick (and us) from casinos, and he’s intent on saving us from massive toll hikes as well. But he’s not going to be able to do that if he’s forced to spend most of his time huddled with lawyers.

Talking swaptions on NECN

And no, I don’t know what they are. But here’s last night’s “NewsNight” segment from NECN in which former Boston Globe reporter-turned-communications consultant Tom Palmer, host Jim Braude and I discuss tolls, gas hikes and investigations.

Media Nation on NECN tonight

I’ll be on NECN‘s “NewsNight” today at 8 p.m. to discuss the Big Dig and the toll-hike/gas-tax conundrum.

Let the Pike go bankrupt

This story in today’s Boston Globe, reporting that the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority will face bone-crushing additional debt payments if the Legislature tries to repeal the absurd toll increases the authority’s board recently approved, has me wondering why we shouldn’t just let the Pike go into bankruptcy.

Regardless of why and how all this happened, the idea that the Legislature can’t replace something stupid (toll hikes) with something smart (a higher gas tax) because of deals that the Pike negotiated in the credit market smacks of extortion. I hope legislators will seriously consider doing what they think is right for the public, and let the Pike stew in its own mess.

Weirdly enough, some of this has to do with the bankrupt financial firm with which the Pike did much of its business, Lehman Brothers.

And by the way, I think my credentials as a good-government liberal are pretty much indisputable. If I’m taking a Howie Carr-like position on all this, then I think it’s likely these hacks have lost virtually all the support they ever had.

The Outraged Liberal has some additional thoughts.

Let’s hear it for DiMasi (again)

I shouldn’t be blogging, because I’ve got an interview to prepare for. But I didn’t want the shift away from a toll hike and toward an increase in the gasoline tax to get by me without saying anything.

This could turn out to have been choreographed. But assuming everything is as it appears on the surface, it’s hard not to notice that, for the second time, House Speaker Sal DiMasi — invariably described as “embattled” these days — has stood up on the right side of a major public policy issue, and Gov. Deval Patrick hasn’t.

Without DiMasi, we might very well be sliding toward Patrick’s disastrous proposal to build three gambling casinos. And Patrick is reportedly still reluctant to support “broad-based tax increases,” as his spokesman, Kyle Sullivan, puts it.

If DiMasi’s enemies succeed in driving him from office, where is that going to leave us?

For whom the toll tolls

What, are they insane?

The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority yesterday didn’t just kill the goose that lays the golden eggs — that would be us. In raising tolls through the roof, as Noah Bierman reports in the Boston Globe, the authority buried the goose’s carcass somewhere beneath a cash-stuffed toll booth, never to be seen again. “I’m already mapping out, in my mind, alternative routes,” writes Jay Fitzgerald at Hub Blog.

Let me say right up front that the proposed toll increases would have little effect on me. I come in from the North Shore, and maybe a couple of times a year I’ll swing over to the Ted Williams Tunnel because something has gone wrong on Route 1. So I’m not looking at a $7 daily toll. But this is just nuts.

Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr is his usual irresponsible self today, writing a damn-them-all screed that doesn’t leave room for any reasonable approach to what has become a huge problem. But on his WRKO Radio (AM 680) program yesterday, he was making more sense, admitting that the state somehow has to pay off the Big Dig fiasco — and that it would be much fairer to spread the pain with an increased gas tax than with toll hikes that, in the case of MetroWest, are paid by those who don’t even use the Big Dig.

Then again, both he and Herald reporter Hillary Chabot raise the specter that we’ll get a gas-tax hike on top of the toll hike. They could be right, even though the Globe’s Bierman reports that Gov. Deval Patrick remains opposed to a gas tax.

On the other hand, the Outraged Liberal thinks yesterday’s announcement is a ruse that will lead not to a toll increase but to a boost in the gas tax. He writes:

But there is a method to this planned madness.

The Globe notes the increases will go into place after another hearing by the Turnpike Authority in February or March. I personally would book Fenway Park as a location that could handle the crowd of angry people.

Presumably, that would be enough time for Deval Patrick and legislators to get off their, um, sidelines, and approve a comprehensive plan to tackle the transportation nightmare (hey, throw in the disaster known as the MBTA while you are at it.)

I hope he’s right. As a Globe editorial noted earlier this week, a 4-cent increase in the state gas tax would bring in $100 million a year — exactly the amount to be raised by the toll hike.

Photo taken inside Ted Williams Tunnel (cc) by Mark Danielson and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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