- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 23, 2006

So many setbacks have plagued Boston’s Big Dig during its 15-year history that a more appropriate nickname for the $14.6 billion underground highway project might be the Big Debacle.

Capping those problems, a concrete ceiling collapsed July 10 inside the new I-93 tunnel complex and killed a 38-year-old mother of three. The collapse prompted a shutdown of two of the project’s tunnels for a safety inspection and a criminal investigation by state Attorney General Tom Reilly.

On Thursday, Gov. Mitt Romney overruled an earlier finding by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority (MTA) and temporarily shut down the eastbound Ted Williams Tunnel after it was discovered that two ceiling panel bolts inside that structure had shifted by as much as an inch.

“It is perhaps an overreaction, but we want to err on the side of public safety,” Mr. Romney said Thursday at a press conference.

Tests conducted in 1999 reportedly showed that bolts holding the ceiling panel in the I-90 connector tunnel, where Milena Del Valle was killed, had a tendency to come loose, and inspections of the I-93 Big Dig tunnels early last year revealed 189 defective wall panels and more than 2,000 water leaks.

“The Big Dig was billed as something far different from what it became,” Mr. Romney told The Washington Times on Wednesday.

“It’s been a hugely expensive and wastefully mismanaged project, and no wonder a lot of motorists keep their fingers crossed as they go through it,” he said of the most expensive highway project in American history.

Troubles during the life of the project have included:

• Hundreds of tunnel leaks and millions of gallons of groundwater flowing into the system because of defects in walls and waterproofing;

• Weak, defective walls, which have been linked to the use of substandard concrete;

• Criminal charges filed against some employees of a concrete supply firm, accused of concealing the poor quality of its product;

• The collapse of a slurry wall and other problems of falling debris;

• Chronic cost overruns and repeated attempts to hide them, which led to the resignation of the Big Dig’s former chief in 1999;

Since he has been in office, Mr. Romney has engaged in various efforts designed to strip oversight and management of the project from the MTA.

“That is a rogue agency without accountability, and it is clear the jobs of oversight and management have not been effectively carried out,” the governor — who is considering running for president in 2008 — told The Times.

Mr. Romney said he wants the MTA to become part of the Massachusetts Department of Highways and the authority’s current chairman, Michael J. Amorello, removed from office. Critics have accused Mr. Amorello of not being tough enough with the project’s primary contractor, San Francisco-based Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, and about 100 subcontractors.

But until Mrs. Del Valle’s death, Mr. Romney said, Massachusetts lawmakers were reluctant to interfere with the MTA’s role in the Big Dig.

“The turnpike authority has been a sacred cow, preserved for its largesse and patronage,” he said.

The goal of the Big Dig project was to demolish an old elevated freeway that ran through downtown Boston and cut off most of the city from its waterfront, and replace it with new underground tunnels.

When Congress approved federal money for the project in April 1987, the Big Dig was projected to cost $2.5 billion. But the estimated price tag doubled by 1991 and reached $10.4 billion in mid-1998. It climbed to $13 billion two years later.

When construction of the Big Dig started, federal tax dollars were to pay 90 percent of the total cost. However, by mid-2000, when the federal payout already had reached nearly $8.5 billion, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, fed up with seemingly nonstop cost overruns, persuaded Massachusetts officials to accept that amount as the federal cap.

The new dollar ceiling represented just 60 percent of the Big Dig’s projected price tag. In fact, $14.6 billion already had been spent when the bulk of the project was completed three years ago.

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