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Review Finds Big Dig System to Be ’Fundamentally Safe’

Mon November 27, 2006 - Northeast Edition

BOSTON (AP) A “stem-to-stern” review of the Big Dig highway system that was ordered after a fatal collapse last summer has found the roads, tunnels and bridges in downtown Boston are well built overall, but some repairs are urgently needed.

Gov. Mitt Romney presented the final results Nov. 17 of the $4.5-million review.

The review found that the original fire detection system wasn’t being used because it responded too slowly to temperature increases, so tunnel operators were spotting fires by relying on information from motorists’ cell phone calls instead, Romney said.

The $14.6-billion project’s Operations Control Center, where people hired to spot problems in the system work, has also lost power twice since the July 10 accident in which a falling ceiling panel killed Milena Del Valle.

The workers in the operations center didn’t have flashlights because they were considered unnecessary with the backup systems, Romney said. He said a computer software glitch, now being fixed, prevented an immediate switch to battery power and then backup generators. The outages left workers in the dark for 15 minutes or more.

“The total story is this: In the opinion of the experts, the Central Artery system is fundamentally safe, but there are corrective actions to be taken,” Romney said.

The problems he identified will have to be repaired after he leaves office in January. Romney said he expects most of the bills to be paid by whomever is found to have been at fault.

Despite the concerns, the governor said he feels more confident driving around Boston than he did in July, when he ordered the review of every road, bridge and operational system in the Metropolitan Highway System.

At the time, he accused the project overseer, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, of shoddy workmanship.

“I must admit that when the ceiling panel fell, my reaction was: ’What in the world are we going to find when we open Pandora’s box, how many things are we going to find where there was real shoddy either design or construction?’” Romney said.

The safety review was conducted primarily by engineers from the Illinois consulting firm, Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates Inc., and Schirmer Engineering Corp. of Chicago.

Romney said they found the system to be fundamentally sound, but not without problems. Among the worst was a bend in a bracket holding a cable to a bridge — the cable itself holds back 1 million lbs. of pressure.

“It shouldn’t be bent at all,” the governor said. “It should be absolutely flush, and it’s bent, and the question is, ’Why?’”

The inspectors also found problems with the concrete, including cracking in supports.

Romney said he considered the most troubling finding to be a lack of a “comprehensive, regular inspection program.”

The governor also announced that repairs to the Interstate 90 connector tunnels where Del Valle was killed are finished on the westbound side, and nearly complete eastbound. He said the state is still awaiting approval from the Federal Highway Administration before reopening them.

A criminal investigation is under way into Del Valle’s death.

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