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The Man Behind the Big Dig

Many believe that without Fred Salvucci ‘61, SM ‘62, tearing down Boston’s elevated Central Artery would still be just a crazy idea.

The sun struggles to shine over the Charles River locks, where the river feeds into Boston Harbor. For fifty years, the Central Artery-a hulking, elevated stretch of Interstate 93-cast a shadow over the area. Neighborhoods were razed to make way for the green-painted steel and concrete mammoth when its construction began in 1951. It cut Boston and Charlestown off from their waterfronts, drove businesses away, and could not even handle the traffic it was designed for. Fred Salvucci ‘61, SM ‘62, stands at the water’s edge and watches demolition crews dismantle the old highway. It’s been more than 30 years since he started lobbying to put the highway underground, and nearly 14 years since he served as state secretary of transportation. Now, as the final stages of Boston’s Big Dig reunite the city with its waterfront, Salvucci sees an old wound starting to heal.

Salvucci believed that spending the city’s money on the Central Artery-dubbed “Boston’s other Green Monster”-had been a mistake, and as transportation advisor to Boston’s mayor in the early 1970s, he sought to prevent it from happening again. He attended weekly Boston Transportation Planning Review meetings, where highway builders and antihighway activists were deadlocked over plans to expand the artery. Local highway contractor Bill Reynolds ‘49 felt highways were beautiful and essential, but he thought the Central Artery gave them a bad reputation. After one meeting, Reynolds approached Salvucci with an idea: build a wider highway underground and then scrap the old elevated one. Initially Salvucci thought it was crazy, but gradually he realized it could be done. The resulting Big Dig became the nation’s largest and most expensive highway project, costing a controversial $14.6 billion. Major construction has taken more than 10 years. More than 12 million cubic meters of soil have been excavated and nearly three million cubic meters of concrete have been poured. Without Salvucci’s dedication, many believe the project would have just remained a “crazy idea.”

Laying the Groundwork

Salvucci has a striking diplomatic air that is offset by his dry sense of humor and his mild Boston accent. He is slender, stands slightly over six feet tall, and has softly graying hair and distinctive eyebrows. His shoes are tidy leather oxfords and appear comfortable and well made. When he was a child, his mother would bring his sister and him downtown to buy new shoes for school. “In those days, the Watertown streetcar was running from Brighton into Boston, and there’s a place where you can glimpse the dome of MIT across the river,” he says. His mother told him, “If you study hard, you’ll be able to go there.” And he did.

Salvucci grew up in a close-knit Italian family. Except for the two years he and his wife lived in the North End and in Naples, Italy, he has lived in the same three-story house in Brighton. Salvucci’s children and grandchildren are all close to home, and his father still lives on the ground floor of the house. His father was a bricklayer and a successful contractor, and his uncles were also in the construction business. Construction workers want their kids to grow up to be engineers, because the work isn’t as dangerous, Salvucci says. At MIT, he started out in architecture but switched to civil engineering with a focus on transportation, because it would allow him to work more closely on the city’s problems.

While Salvucci was an undergraduate, Massachusetts state officials started clearing space for the Massachusetts Turnpike. They evicted his grandmother from her home in Brighton, gave her a dollar down payment on the purchase of her house, and then demolished it. (Many residents received only about half the appraised value of their homes.) “At the time, it was a pretty impressive experience for me to watch: the theory of transportation at MIT and the ugly reality of what was happening,” Salvucci says. His mentors at MIT were teaching him that transportation should nonintrusively serve the local community and be respectful of the environment, but his family witnessed the opposite. Later Salvucci found himself promising other families that they wouldn’t lose their homes to the Big Dig, and he kept that promise.

One professor gave Salvucci the tools he would later need to tackle Boston’s transportation woes. A. Scheffer Lang ‘49, SM ‘61, taught Salvucci that engineers have a moral obligation to think about how and why a structure should be built. Lang proved his point by asking his students to make plans for a dam and then questioning their instinct to build the biggest one possible. “We had done all of this work, and none of it meant anything, but it was an incredibly educational moment,” Salvucci says.

Soon he would be questioning the justification for big transportation projects in Boston. In 1963, he landed his first job as a transportation planner at the Boston Redevelopment Authority, when the Central Artery’s expansion seemed unstoppable. One of the first plans he saw proposed tearing down more buildings in the North End to widen the highway. He was outraged and offered alternatives, arguing successfully that improved traffic flow would make all the difference. Next, he questioned plans for the Inner Belt highway slated to go across Cambridge and Somerville. He provided community groups with technical information to oppose the plan. In response to public outcry, Governor Frank Sargent ‘39 declared a statewide moratorium on new highway construction.

Salvucci became transportation advisor to Boston mayor Kevin White in 1970 and suggested that the money diverted from the halted highways be redirected to public transit. Salvucci has used public transportation for the better part of his life-he proudly carries a combination bus and subway pass-so he knows how it affects people’s lives. White did divert the money, and under Salvucci’s direction, part of the Boston subway system’s Orange Line was relocated and put underground, the Red Line was extended by three stops, and the commuter rails were purchased from private companies and modernized.

Around the same time, Salvucci was attending Boston Transportation Planning Review meetings and heard Reynolds explain his idea. One day, Salvucci walked under the highway and examined its steel piles, which were anchored on bedrock. He saw that they could support the old highway during the construction of a new one beneath it. Salvucci contacted the office of Alan Altshuler, the state secretary of transportation, with the idea. “[Salvucci] was effective,” Reynolds says. “He was a leader.” Soon, the mayor, the governor, and even the Boston Globe were buzzing about it.

In 1975, newly elected governor Michael Dukakis tapped Salvucci to be state secretary of transportation. Dukakis was an antihighway crusader, but Salvucci persuaded him that the Central Artery/Tunnel Project, later referred to as the “Big Dig,” was worth undertaking. Nigel Wilson, SM ‘67, PhD ‘70, professor of civil and environmental engineering at MIT, has known Salvucci since the Big Dig’s early days. “I can’t conceive of it happening without him being secretary for that 12-year period,” he recalls. “I don’t believe anyone else would have had the set of characteristics that Fred had to actually make it happen.”

Open for Construction

In 1978, Salvucci had to put his Big Dig dream on hold, going to teach at MIT when Dukakis lost his reelection bid. The new governor, Edward King, abandoned the Central Artery project, focusing instead on a new tunnel that would extend Interstate 90 to Logan Airport. Local residents fought King’s plan, which would have cut through East Boston neighborhoods. But once again, Reynolds came up with a solution. He was paving a parking lot in the South End when he glanced across the river and saw an empty section of South Boston. He had another idea: why not put the I-90 tunnel here? Reynolds called Salvucci, who was grading papers at the time. Salvucci told him to write down his idea. When Dukakis returned to office in 1982, he tapped Salvucci again as transportation secretary. Salvucci revived the Central Artery project-but with the inclusion of the new tunnel.

The combined project was a winner all around. Both I-93 and I-90 were eligible for federal funding, and the tunnels would preserve neighborhoods, improve the environment, and alleviate traffic jams. It was a project both Democrats and Republicans could support. Former Republican governor (and U.S. secretary of transportation under Nixon) John Volpe came out in favor of the project. Republican congressman Silvio Conte backed it, too. Powerful Democrats, such as U.S. representatives Thomas “Tip” O’Neill Jr. and Joe Moakley and U.S. senators Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, praised the plan.

With bipartisan political support, Salvucci then worked on the local level, talking with the residents whose lives would be affected by years of construction. He organized coffee klatches with neighborhood groups to explain the plans. He promised that their concerns would be heeded and that no houses would be lost. He tackled the required environmental-impact studies-everything from rat control to protecting fish-which would eventually total 5,000 pages. President Ronald Reagan, however, stalled federal funding. In 1987, the U.S. Senate overturned the president’s veto, and the funding finally came through. Salvucci continued to work on the environmental approvals and the construction contracts for several more years. On Dec. 19, 1991-the same year Dukakis left office-construction on the tunnels began. No longer able to oversee the project he had tirelessly supported, Salvucci returned to MIT.

These days, he still advises government officials about transportation projects, but he does so under the auspices of MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics. His students have collaborated with transportation agencies and university research groups in Chicago and Puerto Rico to solve complex transportation problems. Salvucci also gives guest lectures in Nigel Wilson’s course on public transportation. “Part of his genius is finding ways to actually accomplish something that most people would view as totally impossible,” Wilson says. “Getting the students to see what it takes to get these coalitions together to get something like the Big Dig to happen is something that’s a unique opportunity. There aren’t many people like Fred.”

While Big Dig engineers are preparing to dismantle the old Charles River Bridge, Salvucci calls to ask how they are going to manage, so they invite him down for the opening cut. Salvucci stands next to beams marked for demolition and watches the cranes working on the bridge. “Once the elevated is down, and this thing is done right, this is going to be one of the really great connections in the city,” he says. In the coming months, the ghostly remnants of the elevated highway will disappear completely, and acres of parkland will be planted. “Emotionally, fixing the city is the part that I was always the most excited about,” he says. “It’s healing the old wound, but also allowing the city to grow.” Free from its steel shadow, Boston is about to reach full bloom.

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