Romney Shuts Down Ted Williams Tunnel

Mon July 24, 2006 - Northeast Edition
Steve LeBlanc -Glen Johnson and Brooke Donald

Gov. Mitt Romney on July 20 ordered an immediate shutdown of eastbound lanes at the Ted Williams Tunnel, days after 12 tons (11 t) of ceiling tiles fell from a connecting tunnel, crushing a motorist.

The Ted Williams Tunnel, a key feature in the city’s massive Big Dig project, links South Boston with Logan International Airport. The eastbound tunnel had been closed to the general public since the July 10 accident but open to emergency vehicles and public buses going to the airport.

Romney said state engineers had found two bolts that appeared to have slipped 1.5-in. (3.8 cm) and 1 in. (2.5 cm) in one ceiling panel. A special truck — which expands to 11 1.5-ft. (0.5 m) wide, blocking the two travel lanes — has been brought in to shore up the ceiling. He said engineers were working to come up with a plan to reinforce the panel and allow traffic to pass.

“It is perhaps an overreaction but we want to err on the side of public safety,” Romney said at a news conference in which he said he was overruling an earlier finding by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority that the tunnel was safe.

In all, Boston drivers may be facing weeks of detours as engineers work to resolve safety problems in a section of the Big Dig tunnel system where a woman died when concrete ceiling panels collapsed on her car.

Romney took control of Big Dig safety inspections July 14 after signing emergency legislation to transfer responsibility from the independent Massachusetts Turnpike Authority. Efforts to investigate the embattled Big Dig project spread to the courts, the federal government and the state Legislature as pressure mounted on the head of the project.

Romney pledged not to open the area until he is confident panels won’t fall on other motorists.

“And at this stage, you just have to cross your fingers that they don’t come down,” he said. “The people who are working in the tunnel are wearing hard hats for a reason.”

Romney, a Republican considering a bid for president in 2008, said July 16’s closure was not called for because of any imminent danger.

“We’re just not willing to risk people’s lives,” he said.

Two Big Dig tunnels have been shut down for inspections and repairs since July 10, when 12 tons of ceiling panels fell, killing Milena Del Valle and slightly injuring her husband on July 10, as she and her husband drove through the tunnel.

The $14.6-billion Big Dig, which buried the old elevated Central Artery that used to slice through the city, created a series of tunnels to bring traffic underground. It added a new harbor tunnel linking the Massachusetts Turnpike and Logan International Airport. Although it’s been considered an engineering marvel, the most expensive highway project in U.S. history also has been plagued by leaks, falling debris, cost overruns and delays and other problems linked to faulty construction.

Since July 10, drivers haven’t been able to get to the airport through the new harbor tunnel, or easily get to heavily traveled Interstate 93 as they exit the new tunnel coming from the airport. Alternate airport routes have been jammed and nearby downtown streets and freeways have felt the impact.

Attorney General Tom Reilly, who is spearheading the state criminal investigation, has said that both the contractor, Modern Continental Construction Co., and the project overseer, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, were told in 1999 that five initial ceiling bolts had broken free during testing.

“It was not only identified, but there was a plan to address that problem,” he said. “What we’re trying to determine right now is was that plan implemented.”

In a statement, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff defended the construction technique.

“Supporting concrete ceiling panels by anchoring bolts to the roof with epoxy adhesive is widely and successfully used throughout the construction industry,” the company said.

On July 18, Romney ramped up his efforts to oust Massachusetts Turnpike Authority Chairman Matthew Amorello, who oversees the massive $14.6-billion Big Dig, announcing that his office had served Amorello with written allegations of mismanagement.

The battle also moved to the courts when three Turnpike Authority board members appointed by Romney sued Amorello, claiming he has tried to strip the board of its power and give himself sole control of the agency’s daily operations.

They asked a state Supreme Judicial Court justice to declare the bylaw changes invalid and to order Amorello to schedule an emergency meeting. A hearing was set for July 26.

The Big Dig project took more than a decade to complete and has since been plagued by leaks, falling debris, cost overruns, delays and problems linked to faulty construction.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General agreed July 18 to step in and oversee the Big Dig investigations being conducted by other agencies such as the Federal Highway Administration. State Attorney General Tom Reilly also is investigating.

Also July 18, lawmakers began circulating proposed legislation to create a seven-member board with subpoena powers to investigate “unsafe and corrupt practices by contractors and government officials” related to the construction of the Big Dig.

Romney on July 18 toured the site of the collapse, where engineers began working on a design to put the back-up system in place for the 1,100 hanger bolts that used epoxy, which tests have shown to be unreliable.

Methods for reinforcing heavy concrete ceiling tiles in the Big Dig tunnels were tested successfully, and Romney said he hoped at least one ramp that has been closed since the collapse would be reopened shortly.

Romney said the fatal accident July 10 bolsters his argument that the project has been mismanaged and Amorello should be removed as chief executive. A hearing was scheduled for July 27.

Romney said he will attend the hearing and listen to Amorello’s side before officially deciding his fate. Amorello has the option of contesting the decision in court.

“We believe that the failures at the Turnpike Authority are now so extensive and so clear that a court will agree that Chairman Amorello should be removed through my actions,” Romney said.

Amorello declined to comment. He was appointed by Romney’s predecessor to head the authority in 2002, the agency’s fourth chief in just two years. By the time Amorello took over, the bulk of the construction was done. He earns $223,000 a year.

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