BOSTON — The hulking elevated Central Artery highway that has marred the city’s landscape for more than four decades carried its last car Saturday as it was replaced — five years late and billions over budget — by a tunnel routing Interstate 93 under downtown Boston.
In a simple morning ceremony, Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Massachusetts Turnpike Authority chairman Matthew Amorello cut a ribbon to open a two-mile stretch of highway that allows traffic to soar over the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge and then sweep through four southbound lanes of underground Interstate 93.
“This changes the face of Boston forever,” Menino said.
The first motorist to travel the new stretch of highway was Elaine Cronin, returning home to Boston after visiting a sister in Woburn. She was met on the bridge by Menino and Amorello and given a Big Dig baseball cap and map of the project autographed by the two men.
“It’s part of history,” Cronin said. “I live in the West End and I’ve watched this being built.”
Moments earlier, officials had greeted Anne and Nick Najjar of Stoneham in the last vehicle to drive across the crumbling Central Artery.
‘Highway in the sky’
The elevated road was hailed as a “highway in the sky” when it opened in 1959 but it became clogged by more than double the number of cars it was designed to carry.
Its matte green paint prompted Menino to call it Boston’s “other Green Monster.” The original Green Monster is Fenway Park’s left field wall.
The opening of the new southbound lanes of I-93, expected to handle about 91,000 cars per day, was the last major milestone of the $14.6 billion Big Dig, officially known as the Central Artery/Tunnel Project.
“This is the beginning of the end,” said Big Dig project director Michael Lewis, who has spent 12 years on the project.
More work to be done
There is still about $1 billion to be spent and 18 months of work to be completed, including the dismantling of the elevated highway, Lewis said. The 30 acres of downtown land to be opened up by the demolition is already being called the Rose Kennedy Greenway, after the mother of President Kennedy and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
Saturday’s event was the third major opening for the project this year. A tunnel connecting Interstate 90 to Logan International Airport was opened in January, and the I-93 northbound lanes opened to traffic in March.
“The sooner we finish, the sooner the project stops costing money,” Amorello said.
Since planning started, the cost estimate for the project has ballooned from $2.6 billion to $14.6 billion. It was supposed to have been completed five years ago.
Officials had planned to celebrate the opening of the tunnel with an underground concert by the Boston Pops. That was scrapped after critics, including Gov. Mitt Romney, said the event would be too flamboyant and demeaning to taxpayers.
Still a controversial project
The project never would have won the support of federal or state officials — or the public — if the true cost had been known in advance, said David Luberoff, co-author of “Mega-Projects,” which looks at the politics of projects like the Big Dig.
“I don’t think people lied, but there are incredible incentives to be at the low end of the estimate,” he said.
House Speaker Thomas Finneran, speaking at a recent meeting of newspaper publishers, was more blunt.
“You’d be much, much better off saying up front, factually, ’Hey, it’s going to take umpteen years likely and umpteen billions dollars’ rather than sell it as a kind of smoke and mirrors thing about 'Oh, it’s two billion and a couple of years work,”’ Finneran said.
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