Once upon a time, the city of Boston was one big construction zone — awash in bulldozers, backhoes, and cranes.
That would be the Big Dig.
For all you newbies to Boston, that’s the mega-project that buried an elevated highway that once divided downtown Boston and created the Ted Williams Tunnel, the Zakim Bridge, the Rose Kennedy Greenway, and the Seaport District.
The Big Dig was an engineering marvel, but it also tore up the city in the ‘90s and early 2000s and famously went billions of dollars over budget. Officially, the price tag for America’s most expensive highway project clocked in at $14.8 billion.
Depending on who you ask, the Big Dig was either the best thing that ever happened to Boston or a cautionary tale about a massive boondoggle gone awry.
Ian Coss set out to answer that question in his nine-part podcast series “The Big Dig” from GBH News and PRX in Boston. He is this week’s guest on Globe Opinion’s “Say More” podcast with Shirley Leung. Listen to the podcast at globe.com/saymore and wherever you find your podcasts.
Coss affectionately calls himself part of the Big Dig generation: He was a toddler learning to walk when the project got underway and graduated from high school when it was done.
Today Coss is 35. As lead producer and host of “The Big Dig,” he painstakingly dug through GBH archives and newspaper stories and tracked down principal players behind the project to knit together a gripping tale of how Boston managed to pull off an ambitious infrastructure project that forever changed the city.
At times, you wonder why Coss unearths so much of the ugly politics and what went wrong (shoddy slurry walls and the tragic death of a motorist killed by a tunnel ceiling tile). The payoff comes in this week’s final episode as he lays out why the Big Dig was worth it and why we need to think big again. Find the “Big Dig” at wgbh.org/podcasts/the-big-dig and wherever you listen to podcasts.
In many ways, the Big Dig gave way to modern Boston, but are we too scarred by the process to try anything audacious again?
With the MBTA in shambles and rising sea levels threatening Boston, Coss makes the case there is too much at stake not to set aside our cynicism.
Here are edited highlights from the “Say More” episode with Coss:
Leung: Construction could have been executed better but so could the marketing of the mega project.
Coss: Part of the struggle of the Big Dig was essentially a PR struggle. It was hard to convey at the time how big it was and why we were doing it. Part of the answer to your question is: How do we find a way to conceive and communicate transformative projects in a way that people can understand and feel part of?
Boston couldn’t pull off the Big Dig today because of partisan politics.
A lot of people told me exactly that — that this could never get done today. There are a lot of reasons to think that. Politically, this project just squeaked by the skin of its teeth in the 1980s. Looking at the partisan politics of today and how difficult it is to fund infrastructure projects, I could easily see this project getting bogged down with lawsuits and never making it off the drafting table.
There are so many moments in the story where the project could have died and somehow it just survived again and again. It’s very easy to see how today those forces — that were stopping or slowing or blocking the project then — would be even more hard to overcome now.
To get past today’s stalemate over public works projects, we need to start small.
The answer is not to immediately take a big swing like the Big Dig but to really build up the capacity. Public works, infrastructure investments, these things are like muscles. You use it, you build it. You don’t use it, it atrophies.
We’re coming off of one of those long periods where we’ve allowed a lot of our infrastructure to languish and a lot of ideas to go unfulfilled. If we want to build ourselves back towards a society that can undertake and achieve ambitious things, it’s going to have to be exactly that. We’re having to build back towards it.
Blame the old elevated highway, known as the Central Artery, for our legacy of aggressive driving.
I have no data on this, but this did come out of an interview with this person who worked very closely in funding the Central Artery project. His theory was that the reason why Boston drivers are so aggressive is that you had to be aggressive in order to get on or off of the Central Artery because it was such a chaotic messed up, poorly-designed highway that you had to be.
ATTENTION ‘SAY MORE’ LISTENERS: For the holidays, we’re going to be turning the mic around. So I invite you to AMA: Ask Me Anything. Have questions about Boston journalism, podcasting, or what I’ve learned in my 20-plus-year career in media? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.