BOSTON -- Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation James Kerasiotes told a group of Boston businessmen last week that the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel project is getting bad publicity simply because of politics.
"Let's face it, folks," Kerasiotes said. "This is the political season. And this project is the biggest game in town."
That may or may not account for the tunnel project's troubles, but the explanation points to a potentially bigger problem for Gov. William F. Weld. Politics counts for a lot, especially in Massachusetts.
Ever since Weld first began running for the right to sit in the statehouse's comer office, he has presented himself as the state's agent of change. There has been a lot for him to change: On his first day in office, the state was just one bounced check away from the land of junk bonds.
Conservative economics made up a big part of Weld's platform, and the state's strengthening economy has done a lot to help him politically. Massachusetts' credit ratings are respectable again, and jobs are coming back to the state.
But several state watchers say Weld made his biggest contribution by delivering on another promise: an end to infighting among the state's leaders.
Squabbling between former Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and the legislative leadership allowed state finances to drift near disaster. Now Weld, a Republican dealing with Democrats, is given credit for ending government by standoff.
What worries many state leaders is that the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel project might change all that.
Last week, the Boston Globe ran a story saying that Weld's chief fundraiser, Peter Berlandi, who is also a paid consultant for the Bechtel Corp., stepped out of bounds and acted to have some information withheld about the progress of the project. Bechtel, in partnership with the Parsons Brinkerhoff Co., is acting as the management consultant for the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel project.
Whether or not Berlandi acted improperly is not really the important thing. What's important is that his relationships with Bechtel and Weld don't look good.
The information Berlandi withheld dealt with soil problems at the proposed Fort Point Crossing and could cost the state between $200 million and $500 million and two extra years of work. A delay due to soil problems and a possible redesign could prove expensive.
This would not be such a big deal, except that the size of the project has risen from $2.5 billion in 1985 to about $8 billion now. Although the federal government has pledged to pay 85% of the project's costs, the Federal Highway Administration has started to grouse about the rising costs and words like "spending cap" are starting to fly around.
At any rate, the state is going to have to pay for part of this project and will most likely do that through the sale of general obligation bonds of some kind.
Between the Berlandi issue and the - rising costs of the aptly named "Big Dig," the three Democrats who want to challenge the governor have finally found a weapon.
One candidate, former state Sen. George Bacharach, even asked for Kerasiotes to resign as transportation secretary last week.
If this is all just political jockeying, then fine. It might spice up an otherwise boring campaign season. But many statehouse sources said this could be a sign of worse things to come. If Weld wins again, and it looks like he will, he has four more years to deal with this legislature.
A return to poor communication in state government would be disastrous. A credit rating can be lowered as well as raised.
Even more disastrous to .the governor would be a return to the "good old days" of Massachusetts politics, which were never really that good anyway.