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Mass. Lawmakers Push for National Tunnel Inspections

Tue July 31, 2007 - Northeast Edition

WASHINGTON (AP) Massachusetts lawmakers say a federal safety board’s report on last year’s fatal Big Dig ceiling collapse gives a boost to their push for a national tunnel inspection program aimed at preventing future tragedies.

They are pressing for congressional hearings on tunnel inspection legislation as soon as this month, citing the safety board’s finding that the lack of Big Dig tunnel inspections contributed to the accident.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) called for a mandatory federal tunnel inspection program similar to the one already used for the nation’s bridges. That recommendation should help convince Congress to act swiftly, said Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee who is leading the effort on Capitol Hill.

The state’s two senators, John Kerry and Edward Kennedy, are teaming up to win Senate support.

Safety advocates said it makes no sense to have a federal program for bridge inspections while ignoring tunnels.

“It will dramatically improve the oversight and the rigor of how people inspect the quality of tunnels for construction and for safety,’’ said Gerald Donaldson, senior research director of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an alliance of consumer, health and safety groups and insurance companies.

Capuano said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press that he hopes the transportation committee will hold hearings before Congress leaves for its summer recess next month. He has urged the panel chairman by letter to take quick action.

“I think we’ll be able to get a hearing quickly and we’ll be able to move a bill quickly,’’ Capuano said.

He doubts there will be significant opposition, particularly considering the NTSB recommendation. “It should be a non-controversial issue,’’ he said.

The NTSB’s long-awaited report, which was approved by the board July 10, said the use of the wrong glue to secure concrete ceiling slabs was the likely cause of the July 10, 2006, collapse that killed Milena Del Valle. The report spread the blame among multiple Big Dig contractors and project overseers.

One of the report’s major findings was that the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority failed to implement a timely tunnel inspection program. Such a program, the NTSB concluded, likely would have detected problems with the adhesive anchors and enabled them to be fixed before the accident.

Capuano said most people are not aware that tunnels, unlike bridges, are not covered by federal inspection programs.

There are no national standards or requirements for highway tunnel inspections. Tunnel owners are responsible for determining how their tunnels should be inspected, Capuano said.

“Now we need to change that,’’ he said. “It could prevent deaths and save hundreds of millions of dollars to know that a tunnel is in trouble and needs maintenance.’’

Earlier this year, Capuano filed a bill that would require the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to set minimum inspection requirements for tunnels. It also would make inspections of all highway tunnels mandatory. Bridges are already subject to such standardized inspections.

Kerry, D-Mass., and Kennedy, D-Mass., announced they were filing highway safety legislation on the day the NTSB report was filed.

“This report will help build momentum to get this legislation enacted so we prevent future accidents and force accountability on new large federal projects,’’ Kerry said in a statement.

The Kerry-Kennedy measure includes the Capuano bill’s mandate for a national tunnel inspection program. It also calls for independent engineers to review construction methods on major federal highway projects.

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