Big Dig – Bigger Pain

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Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts has ordered the immediate shutdown of the Eastbound lanes of the Ted Williams tunnel after defective bolts were spotted during inspections.

Romney said state engineers had found two bolts in the Ted Williams Tunnel that appeared to have slipped 1/2 inch and 1 inch in one ceiling panel.

"It is perhaps an overreaction but we want to err on the side of public safety," Romney said at a news conference in which he said he was overruling an earlier finding by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority that the tunnel was safe.

State inspections of Boston's Big Dig tunnels began after 12 tons of cement ceiling panels fell on a car inside a connector tunnel on the night of July 10, killing 38-year-old Milena Del Valle.

The connector tunnel, a stretch of Interstate 90 that leads to the Ted Williams Tunnel, was shut down immediately, and inspections found hundreds of problem with bolts holding its ceiling panels in place.

The eastbound Ted Williams Tunnel, operating only since 1995, was also closed to the general public but it had been open to buses going to the airport. An initial assessment from the Turnpike Authority found no potential problems that rose to the level of a public safety threat, said Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom.

"We've gone back and looked at those areas, and based on what we've seen Gov. Romney is overruling that assessment and shutting down the eastbound section," Fehrnstrom said Thursday.

After the deadly collapse, engineers conducted "pull tests" on the ceiling panels in the connector tunnel and found hundreds of bolts secured with epoxy that were unreliable. A second tunnel ramp was closed for safety concerns, and crews began removing all the ceiling panels in the two.

The ceiling panels in the Ted Williams Tunnel are secured with a different system, and they weigh much less, about 800 pounds each compared to 3 tons. (Emphasis added)

Attorney General Tom Reilly has launched a criminal investigation and is considering whether involuntary manslaughter charges are warranted. His inspectors are focusing on how the concrete panels were designed, whether they were secured properly for their weight and if they were tested properly.

This is ugly and I predict that it will get uglier before it is all finished. The new flaws prompting the shutdown of the tunnel are in a completely different support system than the one that caused the original collapse. It's going to keep expanding for a while as these new types of concerns emerge. Inspectors are going to be going crazy right about now.

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