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Report Urges FHA to Provide Better Big Dig Oversight

Tue May 04, 2010 - Northeast Edition

BOSTON (AP) A report obtained April 22 by The Associated Press urged the Federal Highway Administration to heighten its review of safety improvements to the Big Dig tunnels in light of the fatal 2006 collapse of a ceiling panel.

The report showed the federal Department of Transportation’s inspector general believes Massachusetts has done a good job of implementing the safety improvements recommended in a “stem-to-stern review” that followed the accident.

But it also said the Highway Administration needed to do a better job in three areas: ensuring the safety of ceiling anchors in the Ted Williams Tunnel; improving the Dig’s preparedness for a fire, and assuring calculations for the safety of concrete viaducts are accurate.

The inspector general said in the report that it’s making a series of recommendations to the Highway Administration “to strengthen its oversight of the commonwealth’s actions to address unresolved safety risks.”

In its pre-report responses, the Highway Administration disagreed with the conclusion “that its oversight approach has shortcomings,” the report said.

And in a followup statement, it added: “The Federal Highway Administration will continue to ensure the safety of tunnels, highways and bridges across the country. We are confident that all the pressing safety issues related to the Central Artery Tunnel have been resolved.”

The Highway Administration, for example, said it believes it has tested a sufficient number of ceiling bolts to ensure their overall safety. Such “pull tests” require pulling on the anchors until failure; some engineers argue that excessive testing can cause the very damage the tests seek to prevent.

The report also noted FHWA testing showed persistent problems with evacuation procedures — especially for the mobility impaired — for a potential truck fire. On that item, the inspector general targeted the state for action.

Because the project “includes more than 80 lane-mi. of tunnels and is the largest public works project in the country, the commonwealth should use these findings to safeguard motorists in case of a tunnel fire,” the report said.

The Highway Administration also argued that the viaduct calculations had been certified by the engineer that conducted the stem-to-stern review.

The Big Dig involved replacing the elevated central artery through Boston, Interstate 93, with a series of tunnels. It also built a third connection to Logan International Airport — the Ted Williams Tunnel — and connected the airport to the Massachusetts Turnpike, Interstate 90.

Over the course of the project, the cost mushroomed to $15 billion, prompting complaints of pork barrel spending. The project took a tragic turn in July 2006, when several 4,600-lb. ceiling panels in one tunnel broke free, crushing a passing car. The accident killed Milena del Valle of Boston.

In the aftermath, then-Gov. Mitt Romney ordered a full review of the project to ensure its safety. The $4.5 million report was issued in November 2006 and found the highways, tunnels and bridges in downtown Boston were well built overall but needed some safety improvements.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the accident occurred because the wrong type of epoxy was used to hold bolts that anchored the ceiling tiles in place. In addition, the Department of Transportation’s inspector general was ordered to oversee the thoroughness of the full review.

In one report, issued in August 2007, the inspector general raised concerns about warped attachment plates on the project’s most conspicuous feature, the cable-splayed Zakim Bridge. The state later showed the warping was not from stress, but the plates’ initial welding.

This follow-up report focuses on oversight provided by the Federal Highway Administration.

While the administration “has taken action to oversee the commonwealth’s efforts to resolve safety risks, its approach has shortcomings,” the new report said.

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