Mass. Big Dig Springs Big Leaks; Hunt Commences to Pin Blame for Allegedly Faulty Construction

November 12, 2004

Massachusetts Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly said his office wants to know whether water accumulating on the underground roof of the Big Dig tunnels could damage the $14.6 billion roadway project, and who should be blamed for more than 400 leaks in the tunnel system.

“This (Big Dig) was supposed to be a finished product that was delivered and a company was hired to do a job, and the people of Massachusetts, in fact the people of the United States who paid for this, expected to get what they paid for,” Reilly said at a news conference. “Certainly, they didn’t expect to get a tunnel that leaked.”

As early as 1999, contractors on the costliest highway project in U.S. history knew that serious construction flaws existed in the walls of the tunnels directing traffic under downtown Boston, according to documents cited by project officials.

Barely a year after the famed Big Dig opened to motorists in one of the nation’s most congested highway systems, and two months after a leak sent water pouring into one of the tunnels — officials announced the leakage problems, which they say could take a decadeto repair.

“This was done incorrectly,” Massachusetts Turnpike Authority Chairman Matthew J. Amorello said. “It is simply unacceptable.”

Reilly, who said his investigation into the leaks has just begun, promised to hold Big Dig contractors and managers responsible for the problem. Big Dig officials earlier said the public would not have to pay for tunnel repairs.

It hasn’t been a smooth project from almost the very start. In 1985, still during the design phase, the first cost estimate came in at $2.6 billion. Six years later, when construction began, the cost more than doubled.

And by 2000, project managers were fired after it was revealed they were hiding the true cost — currently set at $14.6 billion.

The latest bad news came from a commission formed to investigate the September leak, in which an eight-inch hole opened in a wall panel, flooding the northbound Interstate 93 tunnel and causing a 10-mile backup.

Big Dig officials said the 1999 field notes showed that workers had trouble placing metal bars at the bottom of a 120-foot deep section, and later had difficulty pouring the concrete needed to create the panel in what would become the underground northbound lanes of I-93, which cuts through Boston.

An engineering consultant hired by the Turnpike Authority, which manages the Massachusetts Turnpike and the Big Dig, said the most likely culprit was foreign material that got mixed in with the concrete and washed away over time, creating the breach.

George Tamaro, the consultant, said a patch didn’t hold, largely because the leaking panel was next to another panel poured by a different contractor, and some material overflowed. The panel that produced the leak was poured by Modern Continental, the largest contractor on the project, which he said failed to remove the extra material.

Amorello said it would cost about $250,000 to fix the panel, with construction taking place at night to minimize disruption from lane closures. He said any costs would be paid by Modern Continental or Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the private consortium that managed the project.

Both Big Dig officials and the construction firms maintained that the tunnel remains safe and structurally sound.

Amorello said he didn’t know how much water was entering the tunnel system as a result of the smaller leaks, but said waterproofing teams charged with finding and plugging the leaks were included in project’s budget.

Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff declined to comment on the September breach, citing an ongoing investigation, but said the smaller leaks pose no threat.

“In a tunnel of this construction type, seepage is inevitable, but is mitigated by proper engineering and maintenance programs, which have been planned for and are in place,” the company said in a statement. “The tunnel is structurally sound.”

Modern Continental also defended its work.

“The results of the investigation will conclude that Modern’s workmanship was in accordance with contract plans and specifications,” it said.

But Jordan Levy, vice-chairman of the Turnpike Authority board, said Bechtel and Modern are clearly at fault.

Gov. Mitt Romney said it was further evidence that the Turnpike Authority, an independent authority, should have greater oversight by state officials.

“Somebody obviously messed up big time,” he said. “And that’s just one more example of a long list of blunders related to the Big Dig.”

Amorello said $4 million already has been recovered from contractors who overcharged the project. He said 11 lawsuits have been filed against contractors for shoddy design and work in the past year.

The Big Dig, formally called the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel project, replaced the elevated Central Artery of Interstate 93 with underground tunnels through downtown Boston. It also connected Interstate 90 — the Massachusetts Turnpike — to Logan International Airport, and added the Ted Williams Tunnel beneath Boston Harbor.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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