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Big Dig defects and critics piling up

Published July 14, 2006

BOSTON - Inspectors on Thursday quadrupled to 240 the number of possible ceiling bolt problems in a Big Dig tunnel where a woman was crushed by falling concrete, a still-closed section at the center of Gov. Mitt Romney's push to oversee the safety of the troubled project.

The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority said inspectors found additional bolt assemblies that were separating from 3-ton concrete roof panels, raising the number of defects over previous inspections that found 60 defects. The earlier defects were enough for officials to order a sweeping review of every roadway, tunnel and bridge in Boston's entire highway system.

Michael Lewis, director of the Big Dig, said inspectors found 68 suspect bolt assemblies over the westbound lanes of a connector tunnel providing the main route to Logan Airport. Forty-five more were discovered in a lane carrying carpool traffic, as well as 69 in ramps connecting two interstate highways.

Legislative leaders expressed support for Romney's plan to give the governor authority over when to reopen the tunnel, which has been closed for three days.

The governor has called for the resignation of the head of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which currently oversees inspections of the Big Dig, the nation's most expensive highway project.

"When it comes to an issue of inspecting the tunnel system, to have the person who's been responsible for it for the last several years say, 'I'm going to inspect it' and tell us, 'It's now safe,' that's not enough," the governor said. "The public wants to see an independent inspection effort."

He added: "There should no longer be any doubt that the Turnpike Authority has failed to do its job effectively."

On Wednesday, Attorney General Tom Reilly said the contractor and state officials were warned of problems with the tunnel ceiling as far back as 1999, when five bolts came out during tests. But it remained unclear Thursday what, if anything, was done to resolve those problems.

The panels provided a dropped ceiling to assist in ventilation, but experts have questioned whether they needed to be so heavy.

Also Thursday, the Massachusetts congressional delegation signed a letter asking the National Transportation Safety Board to lead the investigation, saying it is one of the few agencies without any apparent involvement in the project that would pose a conflict of interest.

"The most important issue here is safety," said Rep. Michael Capuano, a Massachusetts Democrat who organized the joint letter signed by the state's 12 members of Congress.

Romney's legislation would give the executive branch the authority to oversee inspections of the failed ceiling system in the tunnel, which has been closed since the accident Monday that killed 38-year-old Milena Del Valle and injured her husband.

The bill provides for a $20-million safety audit of the Big Dig project, which has been plagued by leaks, falling debris and other problems linked to faulty construction. The state is seeking millions in compensation from companies that managed the project.

Romney said the process "is reaching a boiling point, and hopefully steam will begin to rise very soon."

Senate President Robert Travaglini stopped short of calling for Matthew Amorello's resignation as head of the Turnpike Authority but said he should give "serious consideration" to a proposal to remain involved only as a member of the Turnpike Board.

The governor has accused Amorello of being "secretive" and of resisting oversight of the agency, which is beyond the direct control of the executive branch.

The governor has also said Amorello refused to share information with the Turnpike Board, which itself has been the subject of a battle for political control between Romney, a Republican who is considering a 2008 presidential run, and the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Amorello has repeatedly refused calls for his resignation and insisted Wednesday that his agency had "been cooperative in the exchange of information, despite some of the public rhetoric and statements to the opposite of that."

"There's obviously a lot of politics involved," he said.

[Last modified July 14, 2006, 02:46:31]

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