Big Dig – Big Headache

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The problems with Boston's Big Dig that became obvious when a woman was killed by falling ceiling panels are rapidly becoming even worse. Inspections have shown that more than four times as many defects as were originally suspected are present.

BOSTON – Inspectors on Thursday quadrupled to 240 the number of possible ceiling bolt problems in a Big Dig tunnel where a woman was crushed by falling concrete, adding to the urgency of the growing debate over who should ensure the safety of the troubled project.

The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority said inspectors found additional bolt assemblies that were separating from 3-ton concrete roof panels, raising the number of defects over previous inspections that found 60 defects. The earlier defects were enough for officials to order a sweeping review of every roadway, tunnel and bridge in Boston's entire highway system.

Michael Lewis, director of the Big Dig, said inspectors found 68 suspect bolt assemblies over the westbound lanes of a connector tunnel providing the main route to Logan Airport. Forty-five more were discovered in a lane carrying carpool traffic, as well as 69 in ramps connecting two interstate highways.

Legislative leaders expressed support for Romney's plan to give the governor authority over when to reopen the tunnel, which has been closed for three days.

The governor has already called for the resignation of the head of the Turnpike Authority, which currently oversees inspections of the Big Dig, the nation's most expensive highway project.

"When it comes to an issue of inspecting the tunnel system, to have the person who's been responsible for it for the last several years say, 'I'm going to inspect it' and tell us, 'It's now safe,' that's not enough," the governor said. "The public wants to see an independent inspection effort."

He added: "There should no longer be any doubt that the Turnpike Authority has failed to do its job effectively."

Lewis said the road may remain closed for weeks, until federal officials review the panels and workers fix any needing repair. "It will be reopened in segments, not all at once," he said.

On Wednesday, Attorney General Tom Reilly said the contractor and state officials were warned of problems with the tunnel ceiling as far back as 1999, when five bolts came out during tests. But it remained unclear Thursday what, if anything, was done to resolve those problems.

Now I had a commenter on my original post on this subject that blamed the failures on Republican governors. Only it turns out the governor has had no authority over the project from the get-go apparently. Mitt Romney is trying to get a bill passed that would give him some control of the project.

Romney's legislation would give the executive branch the authority to oversee inspections of the failed ceiling system in the tunnel, which has been closed since the accident Monday night that killed 38-year-old Milena Del Valle and injured her husband, who was able to crawl out of the mangled car.

The bill also provides for a $20 million safety audit of the Big Dig project, which has been plagued by leaks, falling debris and other problems linked to faulty construction. The state is seeking millions in compensation from companies that managed the project.

Romney warned: "At some point, the pressure builds and builds and builds, and the public gets angry enough, that they say, `You know what? This really is wrong.' The governor said the process "is reaching a boiling point, and hopefully steam will begin to rise very soon.'"

Top lawmakers sided with Romney.

The people of Boston must be really happy with their politicians right about now.

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