A post on the big dig for Spacing could not have come at a more opportune time with the recent announcement of a concrete plan to tear down part of the Gardiner Expressway. One of the pleasures of driving to Boston was the chance to drive Interstate 93, which passes through central Boston in a new underground tunnel known as the Big Dig.
The Big Dig project involved much more than the burying of the elevated Central Artery, it also involved the construction of a second tunnel under Boston Harbor to Logan Airport (known as the Ted Williams Tunnel), a new bus rapid transit line, the rerouting of the light rail MBTA Green Line, and a new cable-stayed bridge over the Charles River. The entire project cost $14.6 billion US.
Driving through the new underground expressway was somewhat of a let-down, making me wonder if “that was it?” It’s nothing all that special really, not much different than any other highway tunnel, except with on-ramps. I was more thrilled to drive the Autoroute Ville-Marie in Montreal last year, though getting from the south of Boston to Cambridge via Interstate 93 had me exit the tunnel near the northern end and navigate a confusing maze of ramps before getting onto the interesting Longfellow Bridge and across the river.
There are several differences between the old Central Artery that the Big Dig replaced, and the Gardiner Expressway here. Interstate 93 is a major through route connecting Cape Cod, Rhode Island and the southern suburbs to downtown Boston and north through to the northern suburbs and New Hampshire. Logan Airport is also right across the harbor from central Boston and therefore it is a major traffic linchpin. Though the Gardiner was intended to continue east by way of the cancelled Scarborough Expressway, it never had the same function as a through route.
Secondly, during the construction of the Central Artery, a huge gash separated the historic downtown in two. When the elevated portion of the Gardiner was built, just about all of Toronto’s downtown was north of the railway lands, and did not have the same effect until the Harbourfront began to be redeveloped, starting in the 1970s.
Finally, and most importantly, while there were plans to bury the Gardiner in whole or in part through the 1980s and 1990s, the current plan centres around bringing the traffic down to street level. Above Interstate 93, a large park still leaves a scar through the city, and there are still many on-ramps and off-ramps leading into and out of the tunnels.
The current plan for the Gardiner, of building a 8-lane urban boulevard between Jarvis and the Don Valley Parkway, is likely the best compromise, for now, for motorists versus pedestrians, cyclists and local residents, though the biggest issue in my opinion is the maze of ramps at York/Bay/Yonge. Even burying the Gardiner, as once planned, would not be a perfect solution either. While the Big Dig at the surface is nicely landscaped with parks and walkways, it remains a bit of a barrier, with long traffic light cycles to cross the surface streets, and the urban fabric destroyed with the construction of the Central Artery has yet to be filled in. Boston’s solution is a big improvement, but is still not ideal.