Later I learned my mild inconvenience was another’s unspeakable tragedy: Around 11:00 P.M. the evening before, newlyweds Milena and Angel Delvalle were en route to pick up a relative at Logan International Airport. They had just entered the Ted Williams Tunnel — the jewel in the crown of the endless Big Dig — when a giant steel brace above them suddenly gave out, crushing the couple’s Honda sedan under three tons of concrete. Some strange gravitational twist of fate left Angel unscathed, but even as we morning drivers sat in the sun cursing rescue teams were still trying to pull Milena’s lifeless body out from under the massive debris.
At a pizza parlor not far from Samuel Adams’s final resting place in downtown Boston, the incident drew nearly universal frowns of disgust and headshakes from the midday lunch crowd. Thoughts of what untold carnage might have transpired had those concrete slabs fallen during rush hour must have crossed more than a few minds. Yet as I mingled, chatted, and eavesdropped, I did not once hear anyone express “shock” at the news, nor use any other synonymous phraseology. If a reservoir of trust in the Big Dig exists within the Boston public, they are quite adept at hiding it.
“Anyone could tell you, looking at this mess, that something bad was going to happen,” a delivery driver said to a grunting chorus of agreement from a gaggle of dust-covered construction workers. “If [the tunnel] was really that safe they wouldn’t have to spend so much time telling us how safe it is.”
Such skepticism is not without cause. Since the late 2003 ribbon-cutting ceremony that supposedly signaled the end of the $15 billion project to ease traffic by routing the highway underground and underwater — what Massachusetts Turnpike Authority chairman Matthew Amorello hubristically insisted rivaled “anything in the history of the world built by men” — there has been one monster 300 gallon-per-minute leak and hundreds of smaller continuous leaks. Five cars, including an ambulance with a patient in tow, were damaged when rocks and other debris crashed down from another tunnel roof one night. More recently, six men from Aggregate Industries — the Big Dig’s largest concrete supplier — were indicted in May on charges of allegedly falsifying records to cover up the delivery of some 5,000 truckloads of degraded concrete to tunnel construction sites.
No matter how much troubling evidence of potential calamity builds up, though, the project’s champions insist on a strictly speak-no-evil policy.
“Let me start by assuring you that the I-93 tunnels are safe and structurally sound,” Amorello said after one non-fatal crisis. Even in the face of this Monday’s grisly loss of life, Amorello told the New York Times that “these tunnels are safe” and insisted that “this was a horrible, horrible event, and it was an anomaly . . .”
The Federal Highway Administration has been likewise unimpressive in its watchdogging of a project that began in 1985 with a $2.5 billion budget of mostly federal tax dollars–which ballooned to $15 billion since breaking ground in 1991, without a substantial reexamination of endemic issues.
In the aftermath of the September 2004 mega-leak, for example, the FHA sent their “A-Team” — no, not thatA-Team — out to investigate. The group determinedthat Big Dig contractors were “adequately addressing the tunnel leaks,” before inexplicably describing the influx of some 300 gallons of water per minute into an in-use underground traffic tunnel, “an unfortunate incident that appears to be isolated to a discrete section of the tunnel and primarily the result of poor quality control.”
The A-Team related their “confidence in the plan that is being followed by the MTA and project staff,” while allowing: “Complete success will depend upon the project’s ability to sustain both an appropriate amount of effort and the required attention to detail through quality control.”
But if this incident was “primarily the result of poor quality control,” then perhaps allowing “complete success” to rest on Big Dig overseers’ “attention to detail through quality control” might not be the wisest course of action. This isn’t even “damage control.” It’s “carry on and better luck next time!”
To his credit, Governor Mitt Romney has been beating the drum to return some semblance of fiscal sanity and safety realism to the Big Dig all along, including a protracted fight “>to gain both oversight of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and the resignation of Amorello. He has decried the “pattern of cover up and stonewalling that has left the public with little confidence that the project is being managed well, or that the road and tunnel system is safe for travel.”
Regardless of what Romney can or cannot do about all of this as his governorship winds down, what is clear is that it’s too late to undo the Big Dig — if, indeed, Massachusetts citizens even wanted to (the devil you know and all that) — or recoup every loss associated with it, least of all the life of Milena Delvalle. Hopefully the worst is behind us. As for everyone else: This track record is not likely to make another similar project elsewhere tempting for some time to come.
– Shawn Macomber is a 2006 Phillips Foundation Journalism fellow. His website is www.shawnmacomber.com.