Policy Letter

POGO Letter to Congress Endorsing a Cap on Future Federal Spending on the Big Dig

Dear Representative:

Boston's Central Artery/Tunnel Project ("Big Dig") recently has received national attention. Both "60 Minutes" and The Washington Post detailed cost overruns associated with building the most expensive highway in the United States. This recent publicity is justified and warranted. The Big Dig was originally projected to cost $2.56 billion, far below the General Accounting Office's current estimated $11.6 billion price tag.

As you consider voting on future highway spending, please consider the facts below.

Massachusetts would receive more highway funding through the House's proposed six-month extension to ISTEA than what the Senate planned to give the Commonwealth for all of 1998. Funding provided under this extension is being based on previous allocations -- therefore the Big Dig is being rewarded for being $billions over budget and years behind schedule. A cap on federal funds is the only formula which will limit the "Big Dig" into taxpayers' pockets.

While the Senate has made a valiant effort to keep Big Dig costs in-check for the future, additional allocations currently hurled at Massachusetts by the House Transportation Committee will allow this project to continue feeding off the American taxpayer and the rest of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Many of the Big Dig's problems were recognized years ago. In 1994, then-Senator William Cohen stated, "A lack of meaningful oversight and accountability for this project [the Big Dig] may be unnecessarily costing the taxpayer billions of dollars. As we have seen many times before, Congress gets sold on a low dollar project only to see it grow three or four fold before it is completed." According to the GAO's most recent estimate, Senator Cohen's prediction was accurate.

The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan nonprofit federal government watchdog. In our February 1995 report, "No Light At The End Of This Tunnel: Boston's Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel Project," we highlighted numerous concerns, conflicts-of-interest, and possible solutions for the Big Dig's problems. Since its release, POGO's report findings have been confirmed by the GAO, the DOT, various Massachusetts' agencies, and the press.

At the time, we recommended and we now re-endorse a cap on additional federal spending on this renegade project. At the time POGO released its report, former Governor William Weld had openly endorsed enacting our recommendation -- a federal cap on Big Dig spending.

The reasons to support a federal cap are clear. GAO's July 1997 report, "Transportation Infrastructure: Progress on and Challenges to Central Artery/Tunnel Project's Cost and Financing," detailed present and future construction and financing troubles. The GAO found:

  • Federal government financing has been 82% ($4.7 billion) of the Big Dig's total ($5.7 billion) obligations;
  • In the last year, projected costs have increased by nearly half a billion dollars;
  • Cost containment goals are not being met and future projected savings may be limited, especially since all remaining construction escalates in complexity.

Officials in Massachusetts and Big Dig managers claim that cost containment measures are in place, however, the most recent overrun of $400 million proves otherwise. The Big Dig can only be roped in once Congress agrees that enough federal money has been allocated to appease special interests.

The Big Dig is at a critical junction. The one component that will be largely responsible for the project's future cost overruns -- the tunneling under downtown Boston -- has yet to be performed. This remaining construction (74% of the project) will be very complex and vulnerable to large cost overruns.

If future construction practices follow past trends with this project, the Big Dig will continue to establish a new record for the most expensive highway in the United States and perhaps, the world. A few years ago when a critic of the Big Dig stated that the cost of the project would approach $15 billion -- Big Dig managers scoffed at the suggestion. As we have seen in recent months, costs continue to increase and that $15 billion projection is quickly becoming reality.

A cap on federal funds is the only way the American taxpayer can be saved from the continued cost overruns of the Big Dig. If you are interested in a cap on federal spending for the Big Dig, or if you would like a copy of POGO's report, please contact me or POGO's Senior Research Associate Scott Amey at (202) 347-1122.


Danielle Brian

Executive Director

Related GAO Reports: