BOSTON -- One of the country's largest government-financed projects may be faced with a two-year delay and an additional $500 million in costs, Massachusetts government officials said yesterday.

The Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel project in downtown Boston may not be completed until 2002 and may cost more than $8 billion, they said, because of soil problems near one of the critical links to an existing highway.

Both the state transportation department and the Central Artery office are investigating whether one of the project's designers, Bechtel/Parsons Brinkerhoff, properly took soil samples of the area near the Fort Point Channel crossing before construction of the link began.

Reportedly, the company took soil samples at 300-foot intervals along the bottom of the channel, to test the soil's strength, but the samples were taken before it was decided to add additional lanes to the project for commuter car pool lanes.

State Secretary of Transportation James J. Kerasiotes said yesterday that the commuter lanes may have to be sacrificed for the cost-efficient completion of the crossing.

Several officials involved with the project said that it was too early to assign any blame for problems with the soil strength testing. Artery officials said they are now simply focusing on how to resolve the problem.

"At this point, we are reviewing all of the options and alternatives to get this phase of the project done on schedule," said P.A. Carr, director of media relations for the Central Artery. "It's still too soon to say what the effects on the overall project's costs will be."

This is just the latest in a string of delays and upward cost revisions that have plagued the project. Initially, it was estimated that the entire project would cost about $2.2 billion and be completed in the late 1990s. In 1992, the estimate was revised to $5.8 billion, and in 1993, it rose to $7.7 billion.

It was expected that taxis and buses would be able to use the Third Harbor Tunnel as early as next year and other vehicles. by the year 2000. Cart said the setback will not affect next year's first-phase opening of the tunnel for taxis and buses.

The cost of completing the Fort Point junction was initially estimated at $40 million, with an estimated completion time of five years. Now the cost of the junction is estimated at $500 million and the completion time seven years.

"I think that estimate was very low," said Donald Hammer, divisional administrator for the Federal Highway Administration. "This is going to cost much more than we thought."

But Central Artery officials said the final cost analysis has not been completed.

"I imagine that the final costs for the [Fort Point] crossing will be somewhere in between those two figures, but we're still not sure," Carr said.

The junction at Fort Point is a crucial part of the construction -- and must bear excessive weight -- because the Massachusetts Turnpike will connect to the Third Harbor Tunnel at that point. It is also near where the turnpike will meet Route 93, which runs along the outskirts of the city.

The strength of the soil at Fort Point is also important because the crossing will be built above the tunnel used by Boston's heavily traveled Red Line commuter trains.

Although the federal government has committed to pay about 85% of the costs of the project to build the tunnel, there has been talk out of Washington, D.C., that the federal government may want to put a cap on the amount of funding available to the project.

A report released earlier this year by the Federal Highway Administration's Office of the Inspector General was highly critical of the cost increases of the Third Harbor Tunnel project and said the federal government should consider placing a cap on spending at the $7.7 billion level. After $7.7 billion, the report calls on the federal government to lower its share to 50% from 85%.

"I don't see capping the costs to be a logical solution to the problems with the project," Hammer said. "We have been, and continue to be, concerned about the costs of this and almost every other major project."

Hammer said the FHA is mainly concerned whether both the federal and state governments are able to pay for the project's completion. He said the FHA hopes that the Central Artery officials can resolve this latest problem "as soon as possible."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.