Downtown View:Make No Little Plans

Hey, Bostonians. Can we stop complaining about the Big Dig? Yes, it cost almost $15 billion. Yes, it took 15 years to complete. (It was a big job, moving all those utility lines and keeping the cars running overhead.)

It was also worth every penny we spent on it. It has caused the area around it to explode with new housing, offices and restaurants. It has given us Paul Revere Park, City Square Park and the Greenway and their pleasures. It has allowed Bostonians to get to the sea. It’s hard to imagine that Boston would be as prosperous as it is now without that road having been buried.

The Big Dig, however, made Bostonians timid—afraid to spend money, afraid to tackle big projects, afraid to take anything but puny steps. In fact, Jim Stergios, the executive director of the Pioneer Institute, plunged into this pessimistic attitude in an op-ed in the Boston Globe last September 6. He effectively urged Bostonians to leap into bed, cover themselves up and never venture out for fear of overdreaming and overspending. Home of the brave?

Now we learn from Barry Bluestone and his team at the Dukakis Center at Northeastern University that in the next 15 years the Greater Boston Region faces major problems—everyone actually calls them “challenges,” a weak word when you realize how desperate the situation is. Bluestone’s report estimates that if things stay the way they are we’ll have 80,000 additional cars on the road, and Bluestone already estimates the average speed in morning rush hour on the Southeast Expressway is only about nine miles an hour.

Approximately 14,000 more people will be riding the subways. Sixty-three percent more passengers will be flying out of Logan. We’ll be throwing away an additional 130,000 tons of garbage each year. We’ll need 13.5 percent more water, and the only good news is that generally Massachusetts has plenty of water, said Fred Laskey, executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

Laskey was the only one to bring good news to last week’s sold-out gathering of Bostonians at A Better City’s conference on the State of the Built Environment at the Seaport Hotel, where Bluestone’s report was center stage. And the conference didn’t even deal with housing, another big hole to fill.

The most shocking news came from Joseph Aiello, chair of the MBTA’s Fiscal Management and Control Board, who revealed that the T can’t spend the money it already has been allotted because its management’s skills are not up to the task. Oh, dear.

Maybe that “challenge” will be met by the extra salaries it will be allowed to pay new, skilled managers who won’t be enticed into the private sector by higher pay. We do have a governor who never wants to spend any money, but might actually be able to fix a few problems. We’ll see.

But we need to expand rapid transit way beyond the Green Line Extension that has caused so much sturm und drang. We need to connect North and South Stations with a tunnel. We need to connect points around the region instead of bringing everything into the hub. We need high speed rail to New York City and Springfield and beyond. We need to fix bridges—it’s boring to repair infrastructure but we must do it. We need to get trash and recycling under control. We need to get vehicles off the roads by taxing miles driven and charging them for coming into the city. (Building a new parking lot at Logan is a good example of early 20th-century thinking. We should be taking that money and running the Blue Line directly to each terminal.)

All of this doesn’t even address the problem of sea level rise.

Every time Boston has thought big and built big, the payoff has been enormous, especially over time. The arrival of the Massachusetts Bay Colony? Paul Revere, the Adamses, John Hancock and the American Revolution? Filling in the Back Bay? Tunneling the first subway in America? Building an airport close to downtown? (I’ll hear from East Boston on that one, but it has made Boston desirable for business.) Cleaning up Boston Harbor? Building the new convention center? The Big Dig? These activities were big, bold, expensive and fabulously successful. (I’ll acknowledge that the big ideas based on Le Corbusier’s principals—demolition of the old West End and building vast roadways—were terrible big ideas.)

These projects (other than Le Corbusier’s) unleashed untold amounts of economic activity and investment. They immeasurably improved people’s lives—well, maybe not in East Boston with the airport.

As usual, at this conference, there was lots of praise for Boston’s dynamic industries and well-educated talent. The phrase “world-class city” was dropped at least 11 times. But anything world class is bright, bold, the opposite of timid.

The 19th-century Chicago architect Daniel Burnham is supposed to have said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.” There is some dispute that it was Burnham who said those words.

It doesn’t matter. We need big plans to solve big problems. Big plans stoke the economy and make our lives better. Let’s get our moho back.

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