Activist Drives Mass. to Check High Accident Rate in Big Dig Tunnel

July 31, 2007

Vincent Zarrilli knows a thing or two about lost causes.

His proposal to convert an aircraft carrier to a prison went nowhere. And his calls for an alternative to the Big Dig went unheeded, as did his desire to create a scorecard to rate Massachusetts judges.

But his latest crusade finally has someone listening: The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority launched a safety review of the Tip O’Neill Tunnel this month after the 75-year-old man from Charlestown used the state’s own figures to show a high number of accidents in that tunnel.

“Sometimes you have to check our government officials, despite the difficulty involved,” Zarrilli said.

The Turnpike Authority said it will conduct an engineering analysis to see if changes are needed, such as lowering the speed limit or installing better signs in the tunnel, which snakes two miles under downtown Boston and is a key feature of the $14.79 billion Big Dig project.

There were 614 vehicle crashes in the O’Neill tunnel from the opening of the tunnel through February of this year, according to MTA statistics. In 2001, Zarrilli wrote a letter to The Boston Globe warning the tunnel, without breakdown lanes, was prime for a high number of crashes.

He wants to see the tunnel speed limit reduced from 45 mph to 30 mph.

“Slow the damn traffic down. It’s not going to break anyone’s heart,” he said.

The traffic safety crusade is just one of Zarrilli’s latest quests, and certainly among his most successful.

For years, he has filed legislation in Massachusetts to create a sort-of scorecard on judges. That began after he — acting as his own lawyer — disputed an auction of his commercial property after getting divorced. His idea to have Massachusetts to annually publish a list of judges who have had their cases reversed on appeal — on the theory that judges don’t want public inspection because they hate to be reversed — has gone nowhere.

After reading about a shortage of prison space in the late 70s, Zarrilli proposed converting an aircraft carrier into a prison, and docking it near Deer Island in Boston Harbor. It gained some support from the Boston City Council, but never went further.

Zarrilli’s daughter is a member of the Turnpike Authority board. Mary Connaughton said she and her father “approach things differently.”

“I take a more conventional approach. He takes a more extreme approach,” said Connaughton, an outspoken member of the board who was appointed by former Republican Gov. Mitt Romney. “Nothing that he tries to accomplish is easy. He’s passionate about the causes that he fights for. If there is one gene I did inherit from him it’s the gene to challenge the status quo.”

Connaughton is not sold yet on her father’s findings about traffic problems. She’s calling for an independent review of the data. Both father and daughter say they didn’t consult on the matter.

“He’s a very independently minded person, and likes his independence,” she said.

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