For Romney, Big Dig Brings New Opportunities, Risks

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, recently took control of the beleaguered Big Dig project, which could enhance his presidential hopes or win him more critics.
Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, recently took control of the beleaguered Big Dig project, which could enhance his presidential hopes or win him more critics. (By David L. Ryan -- Boston Globe Via Associated Press)
By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 19, 2006

BOSTON, July 18 -- In the nine days since a woman was killed in a Big Dig tunnel by concrete ceiling panels that broke loose and crashed onto her car, Massachusetts's governor has projected the image of a take-charge chief executive.

Within 72 hours of the accident, Gov. Mitt Romney (R) had asked for and won emergency permission from the legislature to take direct control of safety inspections of the tunnel system under Boston Harbor. He has been photographed in blue jeans and hard hat crawling on scaffolding in the tunnel to examine bolt fastenings. He invited the state's U.S. senators into his office and drew for them large, technical diagrams of repairs to be made.

Romney's forceful role in recent days cloaks a far thornier relationship between the governor and the Big Dig, the most daring, expensive and problematic highway project in the nation's history. After a campaign nearly four years ago in which he asserted he could fix the road project, Romney acknowledges that he has been unable -- or unwilling, according to his critics -- to assume control of the Big Dig.

As Romney explores a presidential bid in 2008, his history with the Big Dig and his current management of the project suddenly bring him new opportunities and risks. His leadership in addressing the safety concerns surrounding the $14.6 billion project, which has been beset by allegations of mismanagement and poor construction, could help define him to a new round of voters.

"It's conveying a sense of leadership," said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst. "People are going to . . . compare the rhetoric and the results."

In an interview, Romney said that until the past week, the project, which is managed by the independent Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, "has received a very small proportion of my attention, because it doesn't report to me. . . . I have no ability to affect the management of the Big Dig."

William G. Mayer, an associate professor of political science at Northeastern University who studies presidential campaigns, said that Romney can legitimately say the problems associated with the Big Dig predated his time in office. Still, Mayer said that callers in recent days to Boston talk radio shows have been asking: "If he can't handle [turnpike authority director] Matt Amorello, how is he going to handle Korea or Iran?"

The project was mired in cost overruns, questionable contracts and reports of design flaws by 2002, when Romney entered the Massachusetts governor's race. A former venture capitalist, he had as president of Salt Lake City's Olympic Committee cleaned up a bribery scandal that threatened the Winter Olympics there that year. The problem-riddled Big Dig was a natural theme for his campaign.

Christy Mihos, a Republican board member of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, had encouraged Romney to run. He remembers a campaign aid in which the candidate stood in front of a nearly complete tunnel, promising voters that he knew how to fix things. Today, Mihos, who is running for governor as an independent, says: "Truth be known, he has been absent without leave on this project and has allowed it to metastasize."

Romney has sought to merge the turnpike authority into the state's highway department, arguing that the authority doled out patronage jobs, provided lax oversight of contractors and was unresponsive to state officials. In 2004, the legislature adopted a major transportation overhaul, but left the turnpike authority and its director in place until next year, after Romney's term ends.

The chairman of the state senate's transportation committee, Steven A. Baddour, said the governor "is right when he says he has tried to get control. At the same time, if he worked more aggressively, he might have been more successful."

Romney's central strategy to gain more authority over the Big Dig has been to try, repeatedly and unsuccessfully, to fire Amorello -- most audibly after a series of leaks were discovered in the tunnels in 2004. The governor went to court, and failed. He has renewed the legal strategy this week, this time attempting merely to demote Amorello.

Former governor Michael S. Dukakis, himself a Democratic presidential nominee in 1988, said, "Any governor that can't take control of an agency like that isn't worth his salt."

Romney said, "Every idea I came up with, I took forward." At one point, he said, he and aides considered stopping payments to the private contractor managing the project, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, but rejected the idea -- reasoning that it might not pass court scrutiny, might be overturned by the legislature and "would mean we basically would stop the Big Dig."

The governor predicted that, if he becomes a presidential candidate, he will not be tarnished by the Big Dig. "The project was designed, misspent and mismanaged before I came into office," he said.

In the meantime, it suddenly is consuming many of his waking hours. On Monday night, he took a break to go to a Red Sox game. The team won, but the governor said he spent much of the game on the phone with his secretary of transportation.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company