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Federal Report: Big Dig Tunnels Are Safe

Mon April 18, 2005 - Northeast Edition
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BOSTON (AP) Boston drivers are breathing a little easier after the release of a Federal Highway Administration (FHA) report that concluded the Big Dig’s tunnels under the city are structurally sound and safe for traffic despite recent leaks. Soon after the report was released, however, construction debris rained down from an overhead air shaft on motorists.

The rare bit of good news (albeit short-lived) for the much-maligned project followed the agency’s investigation into the leaks, which were revealed last September after water broke though a faulty wall panel in the Interstate 93 tunnel, backing up traffic for miles and setting off a new round of criticism. Studies later revealed hundreds of smaller leaks in the tunnel ceilings.

The $14.6-billion Big Dig, formally known as the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel project, is the most expensive highway project in U.S. history. Its cost was estimated at $2.6 billion when Congress first approved funding for it in the mid-1980s, and the project will not be finished until later this year, seven years behind schedule.

The federal report, released April 4, said the problem that caused the September breach “appears to be isolated to a discrete section of the tunnel and primarily the result of poor quality control during construction.” But the Big Dig itself “is structurally sound and remains safe for traffic,” it said.

The 24-page report also urged the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority to work quickly to complete an inspection of the tunnel walls and create an inspection program to detect and repair any future leaks.

“I think this report goes a long way toward addressing the concerns that people might have about tunnel safety,” said Rep. Joseph Wagner, co-chairman of the Transportation Committee. “It’s got to be viewed as a credible, independent look at the issue of tunnel leaks.”

The report also looked at drips near the ceiling joints in the tunnel. Those leaks are smaller than the problems with the tunnel walls but are still unacceptable, said the report, which praised the project’s “methodical approach” to sealing all ceiling leaks by the end of September 2005.

“I’m happy that the citizens of Massachusetts and people who use the tunnel can see a report from the federal government that these tunnels are safe,” said Matthew Amorello, chairman of the Turnpike Authority, which oversees the Big Dig.

But a spokesman for Gov. Mitt Romney said the report’s reassuring words shouldn’t get Amorello off the hook. “This report does not absolve the current management of the project for their failure to successfully manage this project,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, spokesman.

There are several other ongoing investigations into the Big Dig, including a civil probe by the state attorney general and another by U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan.

Safe? Not So Fast

Dirt and gravel rained down on traffic inside one of the Big Dig tunnels the morning of April 5, causing minor damage to several vehicles and forcing the temporary shutdown of two lanes.

The debris fell from an overhead air shaft in the rehabbed Dewey Square tunnel, which serves as the southbound Interstate 93 tunnel, sometime after 11 a.m., according to Mariellen Burns, a spokeswoman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

The falling debris, which caused minor damage to three cars and an ambulance, came from the air shaft that connected to an above-ground tunnel vent that contractor Modern Continental Construction Co. has been demolishing.

Burns said the Turnpike Authority closed two lanes to investigate, and then reopened them within minutes when it became apparent that there would be no further debris to follow.

“Obviously, we think this is completely unacceptable, and while we are pleased the contractor came forward and accepted responsibility, we understand that is little consolation to the motorists,” Burns said.

The company issued a statement apologizing for the incident, and emphasized that the dislodged debris has nothing to do with the structural integrity of the tunnel.

“The company is conducting a complete investigation into this matter to ensure that this does not happen again,” the statement said.

The incident came the day after the Federal Highway Administration released a report saying that the project “is structurally sound and remains safe for traffic.”

Burns emphasized that the falling debris was a demolition issue, not a construction issue.

“Obviously, this has nothing to do with the structural integrity of the tunnel. We still believe that they’re safe,” Burns said.

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