Thursday, July 27, 2006

Tragedy In Boston: Big Dolts Ignore Dig Bolts

As you're probably aware, a 12-ton concrete ceiling tile broke off and crushed a motorist in one of Boston's "Big Dig" tunnels a couple of weeks ago. An engineer who worked on the project says that he warned seven years ago that the bolts could not possibly hold the heavy ceiling panels.
John J. Keaveney in a starkly-worded two-page memo sent in 1999 to Robert Coutts, senior project manager for Modern Continental wrote that he could not "comprehend how this structure can withhold the test of time." Keaveney added: "Should any innocent State Worker or member of the Public be seriously injured or even worse killed as a result, I feel that this would be something that would reflect Mentally and Emotionally upon me, and all who are trying to construct a quality Project."

Keaveney, in an interview last night, said that after he raised the concern, his superiors at Modern Continental, the company then building the tunnel, and representatives from Bechtel/ Parsons Brinckerhoff, the private sector manager of the Big Dig, sought to reassure him. They told him that such a system had been tested and was proven to work.

He said Coutts told him, " `John, this is a tried and true method,' " he recalled. He also raised the concern in person with Bechtel/ Parsons Brinckerhoff officials in subsequent conversations, but they said simply that they were doing the work to design specifications and that the ceiling would hold.
And it wasn't his own engineering expertise that opened his eyes, but a question from a skeptical third grader:
He said he really began to worry about the ceiling after a third- grade class from his hometown of Norwell came to visit the Big Dig for a tour in spring 1999. He showed the class some concrete ceiling panels and pointed to the bolts protruding from the ceiling, explaining that the panels would one day hang from those bolts.

A third-grade girl raised her hand and asked him, "Will those things hold up the concrete?"

He started voicing concerns among his colleagues and then to managers after that. "It was like the [third-graders] had pointed out the emperor has no clothes," he said. "I said, `Yes, it would hold,' but then I thought about it."

He travels frequently and was in New York City on a job when Del Valle was killed. He returned to Boston July 12 and was watching the television news with this wife when the story came on.

"I said, `Oh, my God,' that's my job," he said.

Keaveney said he blames himself. "I am part of the problem," he said. "I failed to open my mouth. I failed to push the letter I wrote for results. I am partially responsible for the death of this mother."
But the problems were much bigger than just one man's failure to convince his superiors that something was wrong. A Washington Post story last weekend details the extensive system failures and lack of oversight that led to the disaster.
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).
In the 1980's, Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Frederick P. Salvucci , concerned that the state workers would have a hard time overseeing the project, hired a private firm, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, to oversee construction and inspection of the project. The state would oversee the firm.

But when Republican Governor William Weld came into office, things changed -- for the worse:
The year construction began, Gov. William F. Weld (R) moved into the statehouse, possessing a faith in the private sector and a disdain for the state workers he derided as "walruses." Supervision waned. [MA state auditor A. Joseph] DeNucci, a prizefighter and a legislator before being elected state auditor in 1987, said: "The commonwealth abdicated its responsibility to Bechtel."

The federal government similarly was reducing its oversight of highway projects it funded. The year the Big Dig's construction began, a newly enacted federal law changed funding methods and eliminated detailed, periodic cost analyses by the Federal Highway Administration.
And the rest, as they say, is history, a history that has already cost one life.