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Yvonne Abraham

Big Dig left city with ugly network of tunnels

Scandal derailed the vision for the Central Artery. Now, we’re stuck with it.

The Central Artery Project was supposed to create a grand underground boulevard. But those plans went astray amid cost overruns and scandal. Bill Greene/Globe staff
Instead of boasting mosaics, the tunnels are dark and dirty. Bill Greene/Globe staff/Boston Globe

Argh, my eyes!

For ugly, it’s hard to beat the tunnels of Boston - those filthy, unfinished, aesthetically bereft, subterranean blights that are a visitor’s first experience of the post-Big-Dig city - no matter what direction they come from.

“Welcome to Boston, where we don’t care how we look,’’ these engineering marvels say to incoming Duluthers or Gdanskians, not to mention zillions of commuters.

“What can we do?’’ they shrug. “We ran out of money.’’

And pride.

There is so much ghastliness. Where to begin? How about the dirt? It’s bad enough the walls are covered in those endless, boring, white porcelain tiles (on which more later): They’re also so exhaust-blackened, the tunnels look like one vast New York Port Authority bathroom, circa 1978. Some of the walls and grates haven’t been washed in years. A few have never made the acquaintance of Messrs. Soap and Water.


“I don’t think in past years we’ve been as diligent about cleaning,’’ says Frank DePaola, MassDOT’s newish highway honcho and master of understatement. But he promises a big push on the cleanliness front starting this month, when nocturnal, raincoated crews will wield power washers.

That ought to brighten the tunnels a bit. Lord knows, they need it. Because most of them are lit by the saddest lights you’ve ever seen, long lines of wan, fluorescent fixtures that seem to be using all of their energy just clinging to the ceiling, and cast a pale, sickly glow that would make a teenaged Goth swoon.

And that’s the ones that are working. Almost every mile of tunnel has lights out. The bumpy, crumbling turnpike tunnels that run under the Prudential Center boast the gloomiest gloom. There, DePaola’s people have installed new lights to bolster the pathetic old ones, but they’re so oddly spaced, it looks like a ruffian has come in and punched out a bunch of the tunnel’s teeth.


DePaola is talking about replacing the lights in all tunnels with new, LED numbers. I’m conflicted about this. Because, even though it will make the tunnels safer, better lighting means it will be harder to ignore the most egregious of the aesthetic transgressions perpetrated by highway officials in their quest to save money. In most of the artery’s tunnels and connectors (except the Ted Williams Tunnel, which was finished first), the tiles stop about two-thirds of the way up to the ceilings. In their place, there is black-painted concrete, steel grates, or, as on the Storrow Drive ramp, a pocked and jagged wall.

The steel grates, offensive as they are, were an attempt to prettify the even uglier nothingness begat by budget cuts. But even that has been messed up, with chunks of the metal cut away, willy-nilly, as workers try to control the water leaks the project’s flawed design made inevitable. And above it all are ceilings one might find in a coal mine - sprayed black, and sporting a messy array of exposed cables and pipes.

After a couple hundred feet of this, you long for the relief of the above-ground. But here is one of the artery’s cruelest jokes: Emerge in the North End, and you’re greeted by an unlovely monument to dashed hopes - a forest of irregular rebar jutting out of the road dividers. The metal was left exposed because it was going to be connected to a YMCA once planned for the space above. But that dream is even rustier than the rebar.


Exit the main artery to the south and you land on Interstate 93, where barriers on both sides of the highway host an alarming array of unsightly weeds that seem set to engulf your car, should you get caught too long in a traffic jam.


It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When the Central Artery Project was first conceived, it was going to be a grand, underground boulevard like those in world-class cities like Montreal and Madrid. One of the world’s most ambitious public works projects, it was also going to be one of its most beautiful - a source of civic pride for generations to come. Artists were chosen to add distinctive touches. The monotonous bathroom tiles were to be broken up with mosaics and illustrations to give you a sense of where you were in the city, just as the elevated road, which for so long defined ugly in this town, did.

Rebar sticks out at the O’Neill Tunnel.Bill Greene/Globe staff/Boston Globe

But then the project’s budget exploded, a huge scandal erupted, and Big Dig bigs decided an easy way to pop ballooning costs was to do penny-ante stuff like scrimp on finishes. So underground, the overpriced engineering marvel we ended up with has a face only a mother could love.

Its father, not so much. “This was a public work we wanted the public to love; that was the philosophy,’’ says Fred Salvucci, the former transportation secretary credited with conceiving the project. In the 1970s, when he first explored the idea of depressing the Central Artery, we still believed in big civic projects in this country. We had as much pride in our city as we did in our overpaid pro athletes. We had more faith in government - could we now have less? - and more of a sense of community.


The project’s coverups and cost overruns didn’t help, of course. But neither did the failure to fully realize Salvucci’s original vision.

“Those 4 million bathroom tiles set the tone,’’ Salvucci says. Their message: “We’re going to spend a zillion dollars for these things engineers love, but we’re not going to do things that make the general public love it, too.’’

So, here we are. And here we shall stay. State transportation officials face a $1.3 billion annual deficit, partly because of the miserable finances of the MBTA, partly because of the backlog of highway projects and repairs. They have their hands full keeping bridges from falling down and roads from swallowing cars. Nobody is going to spend money prettifying tunnels.

So our big shrug - our collective Meh - remains, a monument to a lack of money, vision, and a shrunken sense of who we are and can be.

The Central Artery is still a great change for the city, a life-changing, time-saving, immense achievement. I know, because I drive it every day.

Look for me down there. I’ll be the one covering my eyes.


Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at