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Playing the numbers
Is the Big Dig headed for another billion-dollar overrun? Turnpike authorities say yes. The governor says no. Who’s right?

BY SETH GITELL


A CURSORY GLANCE at the news reports surrounding the fracas at the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority suggests that something akin to a three-ring circus is taking place at the state-government body: HIT THE ROAD — SWIFT FIRES PAIR IN TOLL MESS, blared the Boston Herald on November 17. That same day, a Herald editorial titled TURNPIKE FOLLIES CONTINUE ridiculed the combatants. The next day, Herald columnist Howie Carr took aim at Governor Jane Swift in his column. A week later the Boston Globe reported, PIKE BOARD MEMBERS TAKE BATTLE TO SJC.

The stories in both dailies paint a stark picture of two rebel board members and the reformist governor who fired them. There’s the motor-mouth former mayor of Worcester, Jordan Levy, and the disloyal, millionaire Republican activist, Christy Mihos, flouting responsible fiscal governance by refusing to implement a toll increase intended to raise a much-needed $30 million to help pay for the Big Dig. Embattled governor Swift comes across as courageously taking the politically unpopular position of trying to get the renegades to do the right thing and raise tolls.

Listen to Levy, Mihos, and others familiar with the battle, however, and a vastly different picture emerges. Levy and Mihos maintain that their dispute with Swift has little to do with their vote against increasing tolls on the Mass Pike, but rather involves their aggressive questioning of Big Dig officials about the project’s budget. They warn that vast payment disputes involving the state, the state’s joint-venture partner, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, and other contractors, as well as the worsening leaks at the Fort Point Channel Tunnel, could add millions, if not billions, to the final cost of the project.

While such estimates are always difficult to pin down, sources say the state could face up to $1 billion in new liabilities on the claim-settlement front. And each week the leaks at Fort Point Channel delay construction, the Big Dig loses $10 million; already, the leaks have cost $120 million. Until the problem is fixed — and nobody knows when that will happen — the final cost cannot be estimated.

This version of Big Dig reality differs so vastly from public perception that it calls into question the attitude prevailing in the Commonwealth ever since then-governor Paul Cellucci sent Big Dig chief James Kerasiotes packing in April 2000. Since everyone now knows that Kerasiotes’s assurances that the Big Dig was "on time and on budget" were worthless and that the true cost of the project under Kerasiotes’s management was not $10.8 billion but $12.2 billion (it’s since ballooned to $14 billion), a strange sense of calm has surrounded the project.

Cellucci tapped his loyal and able secretary for administration and finance, Andrew Natsios, to replace Kerasiotes. Natsios promptly promised a new era of openness at the Big Dig and "no guarantees" about cost overruns. A little less than a year later, Natsios announced his intention to resign from the project. (He now heads the US Agency for International Development.) Cellucci and his successor, Swift, brought in two men to do the job Natsios had done — J. Richard Capka as chief executive officer and David Forsberg as board chairman. Perception of the project has been that costs are finally under control and that officials are being open with the public about what those costs are.

But Mihos and Levy paint a bleak financial picture of the Big Dig — a financial picture that we’ve yet to hear about from Big Dig officials. It’s also one that differs markedly from the public face put on by the governor. "Jordan Levy and Christy Mihos have uncovered absolutely nothing at the Central Artery that hasn’t been already reported by the various other overseers of the project," says Jim Borghesani, a spokesman for Swift. "It’s simply their intention to deflect from the real issue, which is their fiscal mismanagement of the Turnpike’s finances."

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Issue Date: December 6 - 13, 2001

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