Congress Promised But Hasn’t Delivered On Tunnel Safety Program

May 20, 2009

PROMISES, PROMISES: Congress slow on tunnel safety
Received by Newsfinder from AP
May 19 2009, 03:02 Eastern Time


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EDITOR’S NOTE _ An occasional look at government promises and
how well they are kept.
Associated Press Writer

After the Big Dig tunnel’s ceiling collapsed and killed a Boston woman in 2006, lawmakers promised to fix a glaring gap in the country’s transportation safety network: the lack of a national highway tunnel inspection program.

Yet nearly three years after the accident, Congress has failed to create a federal tunnel program similar to the one already used to safeguard the nation’s bridges.

Any sense of urgency has faded along with all the headlines about the deadly Big Dig accident, and that frustrates Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., a former mayor who has led the fight on Capitol Hill for national highway tunnel inspections.

“It shows how long it takes to get what I consider to be relatively simple legislation passed,” said Capuano, whose district includes most of the Big Dig. “This should be a no-brainer for Congress. It’s common-sense legislation.”

There are no national standards for highway tunnel inspections. Owners aren’t required to routinely inspect tunnels, and state inspection methods vary.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s Big Dig accident report stressed the need for a national tunnel inspection program, saying such a program probably could have prevented the Boston accident.

Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel in October 2007 urged federal officials to “move aggressively” to set “rigorous tunnel inspection standards as soon as possible.”

Federal officials estimate there are more than 300 highway tunnels across the country, but there’s no national inventory. Many are aging, with most ranging from 51 to 100 years old.

And new tunnels are on the way. Seattle plans a $4 billion project to replace the 56-year-old Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel under the city’s waterfront.

“Tunnels and other infrastructure systems have a significant impact on the safety and security of the American people and economy, so the idea of an inspection program that could help improve their performance is certainly something the American Society of Civil Engineers supports,” said Wayne Klotz, president of the professional organization for engineers who build the nation’s roads, tunnels and bridges.

The $15 billion Big Dig project replaced an aging, elevated highway in the heart of Boston with a series of tunnels, ramps and bridges. Considered the costliest highway project in U.S. history, it was plagued by construction problems, leaks, falling debris and huge cost overruns.

On July 2006, Milena Del Valle and her husband were driving through an Interstate 90 connector tunnel when 26 tons of concrete ceiling panels crashed onto their 1991 Buick, crushing to death the 39-year-old mother of three.

The NTSB’s July 2007 accident report said the wrong type of adhesive was used to secure the concrete slabs in the tunnel ceiling, and the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority contributed to the accident by failing to implement a timely tunnel inspection program.

Such inspections, the NTSB concluded, “likely” would have detected the adhesive problems and “action could have been taken that would have prevented this accident.”

When lawmakers learn such a highway tunnel inspection program wasn’t already in place, they promised to correct the problem.

“Congress needs to do its part to help prevent another fatal accident and protect taxpayers,” Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said in 2007. “We will work hard to get this legislation enacted into law to protect taxpayers and ensure public safety.”

Capuano filed a bill in January 2007 modeled after the bridge program. It sets inspection standards and requires that all highway tunnels be inspected.

While some states already inspect their tunnels, Capuano said, a national program is needed to ensure quality standards. Capuano’s bill would require training for inspectors and it calls for a national tunnel inspection database.

Kerry filed similar Senate legislation.

Capuano’s bill breezed through the House on a voice vote in January 2008. But the legislation stalled in the Senate amid the crush of bills considered as Congress ended its session last year, Capuano said.

Capuano this year plans to tack his proposal onto a big highway and transit bill the House is expected to pass. Kerry again will push a Senate version.

“Nobody is opposed to it,” Capuano said. “Like anything else, people have their own priorities.”

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