On the Road to Boston for answers to I-81 through Syracuse

Rick Dimino, of ABC Boston. Former Boston Transportation Commissioner during eight years of the Big Dig.

Any drive into the center of Boston takes you along, through or over a piece of the Big Dig. It may be the Tip O'Neil Tunnel that sits 100 feet below grade on the same path as the former double decker elevated highway. It may be the Ted Williams Tunnel that carries you under Boston Harbor to Logan Airport. It may be across the iconic Zakim Bunker Hill bridge past the historic north end over the Charles River.

It has changed urban travel in Boston. It also took 35 years from planning to completion at a cost of $15 billion that was five times the initial budget. Most commuters and visitors now pass through without giving it a second thought. It has set a stage for multiple generations to come.

"Whatâ??s interesting about the Big Dig is that itâ??s the same people who stopped the urban highways," said David Luberoff. "It is to be understood as an experiment. Is it possible to build an urban freeway that is a positive for the urban area?" Luberoff is with the Boston Area Research Initiative. At Harvard he teaches about the interaction of scholars and government leaders. He has written extensively about the Big Dig.

Luberoff still marvels at the accomplishment of a vision that took commitment to turn into a mega-project. Building a tunnel while keeping operational the elevated highway above was unprecedented. "One of the senior officials once described that as performing open surgery on someone while theyâ??re playing tennis. Itâ??s really complicated," said Luberoff. "And to boot, Boston is an old city no one really knew what was down there. The engineering and construction challenges are enormous."

Fred Salvucci and Rick Dimino were two of the leaders of the Central Artery/Tunnel project. Dimino was Boston's Transportation Commissioner for eight years and also led the Artery Business Committee which was tasked with keeping Boston open and running during the massive and lengthy construction. Salvucci is considered the master designer of what became called the Big Dig. He served in Massachusetts state government under Governors Francis Sargent and Michael Dukakis for whom he served as Transportation Secretary.

Salvucci attended thousands of community meetings between 1971 and 1990 as he built consensus, fought for funding and battled politicians on making the Central Artery/Tunnel project reality. He dealt with giant issues ranging from funding from the Reagan Administration in Washington D.C. to keeping the people who run a city market happy. "We had real neighborhoods with real people living in them. We had a push cart market where we had to convince them that we werenâ??t going to put dust on their tomatoes," Salvucci said. "Every week they opened, and we promised them they would remain open during the whole process and flourished and it worked."

Dimino is still active in transportation issues. He teaches on the graduate level at Harvard. He is the president of the successor to the Arter Business Committee. "The Central Artery Tunnel project was one of those ideas of doing something big. The Hoover Dam was a something big, filling in the Back Bay was a big idea," said Dimino. "Filling in the waterâ??s edge and doing land development was a big idea. Eliminating an elevated highway in Syracuse and putting in urban fabric is a Big idea."

It is critical for the future of urban fabric to continue thinking big according to Dimino. "We should still be up for doing big ideas in this country," he said. "Thatâ??s what helps make cities great, and makes place wonderful and makes places where people want to live."

He offers the same advice to Syracuse as he would to cities old and new across the nation and around the world. "Honestly if youâ??re developing a city today you do not go into it with an elevated structure right through the center of the city. It just doesnâ??t make any sense. Can you imagine an elevated structure going through the heart of the Eifel Tower through Paris," said Dimino. "Itâ??s not the way cities were founded and itâ??s not the way cities should be."

"If something is falling down and ready to crumble and you have a chance to rethink that strategy donâ??t be trying to put lipstick on something thatâ??s really ugly. Itâ??s not going to make it. Itâ??s going to stay ugly. Itâ??s going to continue to be a blight and a drag on your economy," explained Dimino.

He sees a boulevard with a strong set of arterial feeders as a strong possibility for Syracuse. Dimino likes to draw comparisons to the vitality San Francisco developed when it took down its elevated highway and created the Embarcadero area.

Both Dimino and Salvucci would not want a return to an elevated highway. Both also dismiss the depressed highway idea as a compromise that leaves no one happy.

Fred Salvucci calls on his fifty years of transportation experience and insight in comparing the tunnel versus a grade level boulevard. "If you go full tunnel youâ??ll have much nicer options when itâ??s over, but constructing the tunnel is tough. Youâ??ll have a worse time in the interim. And youâ??ll have a much more expensive proposition," explained Salvucci. "Thatâ??s what theyâ??re doing in Seattle thatâ??s the option they chose."

"My instinct is if you can tolerate the traffic at grade the boulevard is less difficult to build, not just less expensive, but takes less time, less disruptive." Salvucci warned, "If that would work from a traffic and urban compatibility point of view. You donâ??t want an at grade highway that pedestrians have to cross, but if the traffic is modest enough that you can have it at grade. Thatâ??s pretty attractive."

Both encourage downtown business leaders and politicians to push the community to think big and create a vision for the community for decades to come. That will help drive the decision on the best solution for creating something new in the space of the aging Interstate 81.

Click here for our first two parts of our special report: On the road to Providence for answers to I-81 in Syracuse.