The cost of the "Big Dig" now totals over $14 billion and we'll soon be paying for part of it by toll increases on the Mass Pike, while Congress debates where the next billion should come from. Meanwhile, the "T" struggles along on $550 million per year. What's wrong with this picture?
The toll at the Cambridge exit on the Mass Pike will go up, perhaps as soon as January, from its current 50¢, to somewhere between 75¢ and $1.50. The toll increases are needed to pay for the Big Dig because Congress is tightening the pursestrings after several years of billion-dollar cost overruns. The original deal for the Big Dig, like all Interstate highways, is that the federal government pays for 90% of the project while Massachusetts pays for 10%. But Congress has gotten tired of the ever-increasing cost and threatens to subsidize only 70% now.
That subsidy is the main reason why the Big Dig has only a small rail component, because the federal government doesn't subsidize rail. There were numerous proposals during the planning stages of the Big Dig to make a South-Station-to-North-Station rail connection, both for heavy rail (Amtrak and commuter trains) and light rail (the MBTA). None will get implemented because the federal subsidy only pays for highways. The lack of a federal rail subsidy means that projects like the Big Dig ALWAYS favor highway components over rail components, even when the money could be much better spent on rail.
How much better? It's hard to imagine $14 billion, so let's put it in terms of "T" passes. Investing $14 billion would annually yield about $1,100 million indefinitely, which would purchase nearly 3 million T passes every month at $35 each. That's triple the T's entire ridership, and more than Metro Boston's entire population, so it's the same as saying that everyone could ride for free, forever, for the same price as the Central Artery project. If the T were free, more people would ride it, and we wouldn't need a Big Dig at all.
If the T were free, the MBTA wouldn't need to pay for staff to sell tokens, for maintaining the token machines, or for minting the tokens themselves. The budget for those three items is about $100 million per year. That's enough to buy 50 new rail cars per year, or build a dozen new parking lots at T stations, to handle the additional ridership that free T service would bring.
And the Big Dig's cost will go up again before the project is done in 2004. How much? Here's a history of the total projected cost in the past (this is NOT how much was spent by that year, but what the total was EXPECTED to be; in other words, each increase is a cost overrun):
If the total cost overruns follow the past trend (they're expected to announce another $400 million increase by January 2002), we can expect overruns by completion in 2004 to total another $3 billion or so. The MBTA's entire budget for capital improvements until 2006 is just under $2.6 billion, which includes the new Silver Line bus service, the new Greenbush commuter rail to Scituate, and 19 new stations.
The amount of money we're spending on the Big Dig could get us a lot of rail service in Boston. And it would focus on people with less income, who ride the T disproportionately more than those with high income. Subsidizing rail is inherently more progressive than subsidizing highways. And rail projects are inherently cheaper than highway projects - the "Night Owl" service (late-night buses) only cost $2.8 million for all of last year. $2.8 million is less than one day's Big Dig spending.
Big Dig's advocates claim it will "meet" our transportation needs. Perhaps one more lane of highway will meet our CURRENT needs, but the nature of urban highways is that commuters use them until they're full enough that it's faster to take the train, i.e., urban highways always get filled to capacity, regardless of how much you build. The only long-term way to meet urban transporation needs is by mass transit.
The real reason for highway subsidies is that they're more glamorous than rail projects. Our Congressmen like to remind voters how they brought home the bacon by getting federal billions for the Big Dig. It holds the dubious distinction of being the most expensive single component on the entire Interstate highway system. We can thank Tip O'Neill for that, who called in all of his favors accumulated over 34 years in Congress and as Speaker of the House to bring home the biggest pork-barrel project in American history.
It's time we faced up to the pork-barrel nature of the Big Dig. We're spending the federal tax money of Texans and Californians and everyone else. On average, every American is contributing $60 to the Big Dig, even those who have never been to Boston and never plan to visit. That would be okay as part of the federal revenue-sharing system IF we were getting some real value out of other people's money. But all we're getting is a temporary fix instead of a permanent solution. The tragedy is that the permanent rail solution is cheaper and better, but the highway subsidy structure makes it impossible.