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Mass. Highway Official Quits Over Big Dig Flap

Mon April 04, 2011 - National Edition
Bob Salsberg

BOSTON (AP) Citing what he called a “complete communications breakdown” within the state transportation department, Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan announced March 25 that he had accepted the resignation of a top highway official who failed to inform him for weeks about a corroded 110-pound light fixture that fell inside a Big Dig tunnel.

Frank Tramontozzi stepped down from his position as acting highway administrator, a title he had held since March 2, as well as from the position of chief engineer.

“He [Tramontozzi] was informed early on in the investigation that there was an issue with the lights and he failed to report that to me,” Mullan told reporters following a regularly-scheduled meeting of Gov. Deval Patrick’s cabinet at the Statehouse.

The department also released an investigative report that included an email from a highway official warning that corrosion in the lighting fixtures was a “big deal” and that some were not safe.

Mullan, who also has been under fire for failing to promptly tell Patrick about the incident, declined to say whether he had considered offering his own resignation. But he said Patrick had expressed to him disappointment over how the matter had been handled.

“From top to bottom, we have mismanaged the internal and external communications around the failed light fixture. That falls on me. We should have done a better job and I should have done a better job,” Mullan said.

The $15 billion Big Dig, the nation’s costliest urban highway project, was plagued by design flaws and leaks. In July 2006, several 4,600-pound ceiling panels in another portion of the tunnel system broke free, crushing a passing car and killing 38-year-old Milena del Valle of Boston.

The light fixture crashed to the roadway in the Thomas P. Tip O’Neill Tunnel on Feb. 8. No vehicles were hit and no one was injured.

The timeline of who knew what about the incident and when top state officials were told has slowly evolved since Mullan first disclosed the incident at a March 16 news conference.

On March 25, Mullan said he first learned of an issue in the tunnel by email March 1, but it made no reference to the falling light.

Mullan learned about the fixture one week later during a regularly-scheduled staff briefing, he said. By then, an inspection of the approximately 23,000 other light fixtures in the tunnel was already well under way, he added.

Patrick, who was in England on an overseas trade mission, was told about the incident March 15, one day before the news conference. Mullan has said he should have told Patrick sooner.

“I have expressed to the secretary that a communication breakdown like this cannot happen again,” Patrick said in a statement after Mullan’s announcement. The governor added that Mullan had “taken the appropriate steps to clear the record and hold those responsible accountable.”

Tramontozzi was not the acting highway administrator at the time of Feb. 8 incident. The position was then held by Luisa Paiewonsky, who left the agency a few weeks later for personal reasons. Her departure had been planned in advance and was unrelated to the recent controversy, an agency spokesman said.

When Tramontozzi was questioned about the incident, he told investigators that he did not learn about the falling light fixture until Feb. 25, more than two weeks after the incident, according to a report by the department’s deputy general counsel and released Friday. Helmut Ernst, a district highway supervisor, told investigators he informed Tramontozzi in a telephone call Feb. 9, and that during the call Tramontozzi asked if it was feasible to replace all the light fixtures.

Ernst’s account was corroborated by two other highway employees who told interviewers they were with Ernst in his office during the call.

Tramontozzi, who could not immediately be reached for comment, will be replaced by Frank DePaola, who is currently the assistant general manager of design and construction for the MBTA.

The report also included a March 1 email Ernst sent to the department’s legislative liaison warning that the problems with the lighting fixtures were a “big deal.” He wrote that of the 8,000 light fixtures inspected to that point, five percent had shown “advanced deterioration to the point they are no longer safe.”

Ernst wrote that engineers were resetting clips to less corroded areas of the fixtures as a temporary fix and estimated that replacing all of the fixtures would cost $200 million.

The email was forwarded to Mullan on March 1 by Joseph Landolphi, a public relations aide, who asked: “Were you briefed on this? It’s potentially a big deal.”

Mullan, in a reply dated March 5, said: “Not yet.”

Mullan indicated that the management changes occurring within the department at the time could have contributed to the communications failures.

“These facts, along with our highway administration’s failure to understand the magnitude of the incident, leads me to believe there has also been a clear lack of management oversight in our highway division that has led to an erosion in public confidence,” Mullan said.

All fixtures above traveled roadways have been inspected and the tunnels are safe, Mullan said.

Corrosion had been found on less than 2 percent of the total fixtures and those had been secured, though state and federal transportation officials were still investigating to determine a permanent solution.

In his statement, Patrick credited the department for “promptly and professionally” addressing problems with the light fixtures, and added that it was a blessing no one was injured.

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