- The Washington Times - Friday, July 14, 2006

BOSTON (AP) — Inspectors yesterday quadrupled to more than 240 the number of possible ceiling bolt problems in a Big Dig tunnel, where a woman was crushed by falling concrete, as Gov. Mitt Romney prepared to take control of the troubled highway project.

The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority said additional bolts in the problem areas were separating from 3-ton concrete roof panels, raising the number of defects over previous inspections that found 60 defects. The earlier defects were enough for officials to order a sweeping review of every roadway, tunnel and bridge in Boston’s entire highway system.

Michael Lewis, director of the Big Dig, said inspectors found 68 new suspect bolts over the westbound lanes of a connector tunnel providing the main route to Logan Airport. Forty-five more problem bolts were discovered in a lane carrying carpool traffic, as well as 69 in ramps connecting two interstate highways.

Legislative leaders expressed support for Mr. Romney’s plan to give the governor authority over when to reopen the tunnel where the collapse occurred, a main route to Boston’s Logan Airport that has been closed for three days.

The governor has already called for the resignation of the head of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which currently oversees inspections of the Big Dig, the nation’s most expensive highway project.

“When it comes to an issue of inspecting the tunnel system, to have the person who’s been responsible for it for the last several years say, ‘I’m going to inspect it’ and tell us, ‘It’s now safe,’ that’s not enough,” the governor said. “The public wants to see an independent inspection effort.”

He added: “There should no longer be any doubt that the Turnpike Authority has failed to do its job effectively.”

Lawmakers passed the governor’s plan late yesterday, and Mr. Romney planned to sign it today.

Mr. Lewis said the road may remain closed for weeks, until federal officials review the concrete panels and workers fix any that need repair. “It will be reopened in segments, not all at once,” he said.

Matthew Amorello late yesterday told reporters he would accept independent inspections, but refused to step aside as Turnpike Authority chairman. “I have taken an oath of office to serve as chairman for the Turnpike Authority until July 2007,” he said.

Also yesterday, the Massachusetts congressional delegation signed a letter asking the National Transportation Safety Board to lead the investigation, saying it is one of the few agencies without any apparent involvement in the project that would pose a conflict of interest.

“The most important issue here is safety,” said Rep. Michael E. Capuano, a Democrat who organized the joint letter signed by the state’s 12 members of Congress. “We want to make sure that we got what we paid for and the tunnel is safe.”

Mr. Romney’s legislation would give the executive branch the authority to oversee inspections of the failed ceiling system in the tunnel, which has been closed since the accident Monday night that killed 38-year-old Milena Del Valle and injured her husband, who was able to crawl out of the mangled car.

The concrete panels provided a dropped ceiling to assist in ventilation, but some have questioned whether they needed to be so heavy. As the tunnel continues to undergo inspection, authorities are considering whether it would be feasible to remove the ceiling panels and leave the large fans above them exposed indefinitely.

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