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Fatal Boston Tunnel Collapse Reignites Debate over Project

July 12, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: One day after a tragic accident in Boston’s tunnel system stunned the city, state officials announced today they will inspect the entire network.

Melina Del Valle was killed on Monday night when steel rods holding 12 tons of concrete slabs gave way, crushing her car. Her husband, who was driving, survived.

The collapse occurred on the eastbound connector tunnel on Interstate 90, which leads to the Ted Williams Tunnel and Logan Airport. It’s part of the Big Dig, Boston’s central highway system.

The structure that fell was designed to maximize air ventilation in case of a tunnel fire. The three-ton panels in that section of the tunnel are held up by a series of metal hangers and rods but are not directly embedded into the concrete.

Turnpike officials say they may replace other sections of the tunnel that have similar construction.

Matthew Amorello, chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, assured the public today another collapse will not happen.

MATTHEW AMORELLO, Chair, Massachusetts Turnpike Authority: We’re not going to spare any expense in regards to inspections and addressing any shortcomings. What happened on Monday night was a tragedy that we are going to do everything possible to prevent; that’s why the road is closed at this time.

We will not reopen the road unless the Federal Highway Administration and the Turnpike Authority agree it is safe to do so.

GWEN IFILL: Yesterday, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney toured the site and told reporters people shouldn’t “have to drive through the tunnel with their fingers crossed.” He also called for Amorello’s resignation.

GOV. MITT ROMNEY (R), Massachusetts: There should no longer be any doubt that it is time for change at that authority. Through his leadership failures, Chairman Matt Amorello has undermined public confidence in the safety of the Big Dig tunnel system.

GWEN IFILL: Yesterday, traffic backups in and around Boston stretched for miles; the collapse also led to some jittery nerves.

BOSTON RESIDENT: I think it’s pretty sad that, you know, something was put together like that and fell apart. It’s really not good, not good at all. Let’s just pray no one gets hurt anymore.

Faulty workmanship within tunnel

Mac Daniel
The Boston Globe
It looks like that the catastrophic failure that happened on Monday night is part of a larger issue of faulty workmanship within that connector tunnel.

GWEN IFILL: The accident has raised new questions and several investigations about the massive, $14.6 billion Big Dig project. Cost overruns drove the project's price tag more than $12 billion over budget.

Now, for more on the accident investigation and the history of the Big Dig project, I'm joined by reporter Mac Daniel. He's been covering today's story for the Boston Globe.

And journalist and author Dan McNichol, he's written several books on the Big Dig.

Mac Daniel, you've been covering this. As it stands tonight, what do we know? Was this a freak accident or was it something more?

MAC DANIEL, Boston Globe: Well, the jury is still out on that, so I'm afraid I can't answer the question.

Right now, the authorities said that they've found at least 60 other ceiling bolts or tie-ins that were compromised, according to officials. And they'll be removing these and inspecting them as part of the inspections, so it looks like that the catastrophic failure that happened on Monday night is part of a larger issue of faulty workmanship within that connector tunnel.

GWEN IFILL: Describe for us how these ceiling panels work. They actually are there for ventilation purposes?

MAC DANIEL: Exactly. It's kind of like a dropped ceiling in a home, except these are three-ton slabs of concrete that hang over them. They need to be so heavy because, in case of an emergency, and when the ventilation system is turned on, it creates hurricane-force winds, in order to draw any smoke or other, you know, chemicals out of the tunnel.

And so they basically helped the ventilation system to work properly. That's why they're hanging there. And they're suspended from the ceiling, basically, by these bolts that are either connected to steel rods or bolted directly into the cement ceiling.

GWEN IFILL: How did this become a federal investigation?

MAC DANIEL: Simply because the project was a federally funded project or partially funded, but largely funded by the federal government.

Rebuilding Boston's infrastructure

Dan McNichol
Author, "The Big Dig"
This is a magnificent project, very complex engineering, and it does not represent the nation's capabilities and does not represent the nation's work in the past. And that's what is so tragic and sad about it on a national scale.

GWEN IFILL: Dan McNichol, as we talk about a federally funded project, we're talking about an immensely expensive and kind of historically large project. And I wonder if you can give us a little bit of a sense of how big and essential a link this section of the highway is for the city of Boston and this whole project has been over the years.

DAN MCNICHOL, Journalist and Author: That's right. The project's name is the Big Dig. It's after the Panama Canal called the Big Ditch.

And the project really rebuilt Boston's infrastructure. This Big Dig is Boston, and Boston is the Big Dig. If you look at a construction map, it covers almost the entire city, corner to corner.

And it's taking out the heart of the old highway and replacing it with a much larger, much more capable piece of infrastructure, and that's the complexity of the project. It's a messy complexity, but it encompasses tunnels. It encompasses bridges. It encompasses surface work.

But it's also, you know -- if you compare it to the Panama Canal or the Hoover Dam, it's much larger. If you adjust it for inflation, this project, the Big Dig, is much larger than all of those projects.

GWEN IFILL: When you talk about the messy complexity, this is not first time this project has been questioned, not the first time there have been criminal investigations, not the first time there have been questions about faulty construction.

DAN MCNICHOL: That's right, it's a cumulative effect now. I think it's just gotten worse and worse over the years. And it's becoming a case of how not to run a great public project.

I mean, great in that this is a magnificent project, very complex engineering, and it does not represent the nation's capabilities and does not represent the nation's work in the past. And that's what is so tragic and sad about it on a national scale.

And when you talk about the complexities of the project, it's still no excuse for leaky tunnels and breeches. It's still no excuse for contaminated or old concrete to go into the tunnel's walls.

And now we have three-ton paneling falling from the ceiling and killing motorists. It's just as low as it goes in the public civic infrastructure world.

Interstate closed indefinitely

Mac Daniel
The Boston Globe
It [the Big Dig] really has helped traffic flow, so much so that the infrastructure north and south of the city, the roads north and south, haven't been able to keep up because the Big Dig has made things so efficient getting through town.

GWEN IFILL: Mac Daniel, help us understand how disruptive this is, especially for people who don't routinely travel to Boston or haven't been on this highway or in this tunnel?

MAC DANIEL: Well, they called the road that the Big Dig replaced the central artery, and that's basically what it was. Just imagine a city center with an interstate running right through the middle of it.

The Big Dig, which is the series of tunnels, again, through Boston, replaced an old elevated steel highway which ran through -- it's basically split the town in two pieces. And the tunnel has basically helped traffic immensely, despite all of the critics, and the huge cost overruns, and the questionable management.

It really has helped traffic flow, so much so that the infrastructure north and south of the city, the roads north and south, haven't been able to keep up because the Big Dig has made things so efficient getting through town.

Back in 2004, when Boston held the Democratic National Convention here, the Secret Service temporarily closed off portions of I-93 next to the Fleet Center as a security precaution. And there was a lot of wringing of hands about how horrible this was going to be, and it ended up not being so bad. That's how vital this was.

In this instance, we have another piece of a major interstate through Boston closed, but this time it's closed for an indefinite period of time, 24 hours a day. And right now, as it stands, we really don't know when it's going to open, though we're assured by turnpike officials today that it will not be weeks or months.

But we can only wait and see. It's really -- I'm sorry. Go ahead.

People are doubting entire project

Dan McNichol
Author, "The Big Dig"
People have real fear here of traveling through the 90 and the 93 tunnels that the Big Dig makes up. And people talk about looking up overhead, kind of eerily reminding me of 9/11 when people were looking up at the sky and looking at skyscrapers.

GWEN IFILL: Well, I was just saying, speaking of turnpike officials, Matt Amorello from the Turnpike Authority and Mitt Romney, the governor, today seemed to be pointing fingers, exchanging political barbs, to some degree. What's going on with that?

MAC DANIEL: Well, there's the engineering aspect of the project, and then it's also taken on a real political tone. The governor of the state, Mitt Romney, has long wanted to oust the chairman of the turnpike, Matt Amorello.

The Turnpike Authority is kind of an independent agency, and Governor Romney wants to rein it in and basically feels that it duplicates services that the state could do more efficiently. And, at the same time, Amorello has held his ground.

Romney has gone so far as to take the matter to the Supreme Judicial Court in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which basically said they didn't have standing to oust Mr. Amorello. This latest catastrophe is Romney's latest opportunity, I guess, to try and oust the chairman, but Amorello is holding firm and vehemently denied that he would step down today as a result of this. So it's a political contest that's really, really playing out.

GWEN IFILL: Dan McNichol, tell us a little bit about how people are reacting to this disruption. We talk about the physical disruption, but also, when you have a project like this, which has made such a difference in the city, I imagine there is also just naked fear?

DAN MCNICHOL: There is. I came over here to the studio this evening in the subway, and we were all packed in there. Obviously, because of the tunnels being closed, people are taking mass transit.

And one woman said they "threatened to open up the tunnels." And I thought to myself, "I don't think I've ever heard that in Boston," where commuters were angry that they were going to open up the tunnels.

People have real fear here of traveling through the 90 and the 93 tunnels that the Big Dig makes up. And people talk about looking up overhead, kind of eerily reminding me of 9/11 when people were looking up at the sky and looking at skyscrapers. They're looking at these three-ton panels and wondering.

And that's, I think, hearkening back to the tragedy of this, it's just doubt of our infrastructure. And when you think about infrastructure, it's an extension of government. And government is there to serve and protect, and this tunnel should be there for us to be driving through safely.

GWEN IFILL: Is it also making people to cast doubt on the entire project, the entire $14, $15 billion project and whether it's safe? When you start checking 60 different locations along the highway system, you begin to wonder.

DAN MCNICHOL: Well, that's right. We saw it grow from 200 feet yesterday as a concerned area, and now it's project-wide. And that's what I think just upsets Bostonians.

Bostonians have a hearty attitude about their world, their infrastructure. And they've been constantly supporting the project, even through cost overrun scandals, and setbacks, and leaks, and concrete. I believe this is the breaking point. I don't think anybody has tolerance for this, especially the people in Boston living with it.

GWEN IFILL: Dan McNichol and Mac Daniel, thank you both very much.

MAC DANIEL: Thank you.

DAN MCNICHOL: Thank you.