Myriad Reports Pointed To Big Dig's Problems

A 1998 report questioned bolts in this tunnel similar to those that failed and allowed a piece of concrete to fall on July 11, crushing a motorist.
A 1998 report questioned bolts in this tunnel similar to those that failed and allowed a piece of concrete to fall on July 11, crushing a motorist. (By Chitose Suzuki -- Associated Press)
By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 23, 2006

BOSTON -- When excavation began in 1991, it was heralded as a jewel of engineering and vision: a network of tunnels that would burrow under Boston, eliminating traffic gridlock, reducing air pollution and ushering an economic rebirth into one of the nation's oldest cities.

Fifteen years and $14.6 billion later, the Big Dig is nearly complete. But one tunnel is being treated as a crime scene after a ceiling collapse killed a motorist. A contractor stands indicted on charges of supplying shoddy concrete. One of the tunnels remains closed to traffic, and many Bostonians shy away from the others, unsure they are safe.

After years of cost overruns and tunnel leaks, the project plunged this month into the deepest crisis in its history when the 12-ton section of ceiling panels broke loose, crushing a car and killing a 38-year-old woman inside. The death of Milena Del Valle has become a rallying cry here among politicians and the public to get to the root of the problems that have daunted the highway project.

Yet according to officials, government documents and people who shaped the project over the years, the Big Dig has not gone awry because its flaws were unknown. It has gone awry in spite of repeated warnings about its cost and design.

"It was nothing but problem after problem, and no one was looking, no one cared," said A. Joseph DeNucci, Massachusetts's longtime state auditor, whose office has since 1993 issued 20 critical reports about the Big Dig. "I get sick when I think about it."

In addition to the auditor's work, there were 13 negative reports during the project's first decade by the state inspector general. More recently, there have been hearings in Congress and the state legislature, and financial reviews by the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"This has been the most investigated project in our history," said James A. Aloisi Jr., a former assistant state transportation secretary and general counsel to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

The warnings were overshadowed, many officials now acknowledge, by zeal among politicians, business leaders, lobbyists and private contractors who had a stake in the project. That eagerness to move forward coincided with a political culture in which a series of Republican governors and the state's independent turnpike authority have trusted a private consultant to shepherd virtually every facet of the project, with relatively little government supervision. "What was missing from the whole project was outside oversight," said Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino (D).

Before he became known as the father of the Big Dig, Frederick P. Salvucci was a community activist who despised the elevated Central Artery, which since the early 1950s had carried traffic through downtown. The highway was, he said, "ugly and socially disruptive" -- rusty, clogged, and divorcing the city's core from the Italian North End and the decaying waterfront.

When he became transportation secretary in 1975 to Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D), Salvucci began years of work to coax the local community and federal transportation officials to support an unprecedented idea: sinking the highway below the city, building a new tunnel under Boston Harbor to Logan Airport without disturbing any neighborhoods, erecting a new bridge across the Charles River, and placing parks where the old artery had run.

The price tag was $6 billion when federal officials agreed in 1990 to pay for most of the project. At $14.6 billion today, the Big Dig is six times the price of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project, itself one of the nation's costliest public works. The Big Dig has used enough concrete to build a sidewalk three feet wide from Boston to San Francisco and back three times, according to project statistics. At its peak, the project had 5,000 construction workers and was spending $3 million a day.

From the outset, Salvucci worried that what was then the state's public works department was too weak to oversee work on such a scale. He hired in the 1980s a private firm, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, to oversee almost every aspect of the project, from conceptual design to construction inspections, with the idea that a small, talented state team would supervise the firm.

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