Massachusetts Governor to Ask Legislature for Control of Big Dig Inspections

Gov. Mitt Romney announced Thursday he was filing emergency legislation to seize control over inspections and any decisions on reopening a highway tunnel where 12 tons of falling concrete killed a woman.

Romney also started legal proceedings to oust the chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which oversaw the troubled $14.6 billion Big Dig highway project through downtown Boston.

"There should no longer be any doubt that the Turnpike Authority has failed to do its job effectively," Romney said.

Contractors knew as early as 1999 that there were problems with some of the bolts attaching the massive concrete panels to the ceiling of the Interstate 90 connector tunnel where the woman's car was crushed Monday, Attorney General Tom Reilly said. Five bolts in the tunnel had failed testing that fall.

"It was not only identified, but there was a plan to address that problem," Reilly said Wednesday. "What we're trying to determine right now is was that plan implemented."

Preliminary tunnel inspections after the collapse found at least 60 more signs of loose bolts and other potential failures in the eastbound lanes, according to Massachusetts Turnpike Authority Chairman Matthew Amorello and Michael Lewis, project director of the Big Dig.

In some places, bolts had started to come out of the ceiling. In others, gaps had developed between the ceiling and metal plates that are part of the bracing used to hold the massive panels aloft.

A spokesman for project manager Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff declined to comment on the attorney general's allegation. Contractor Modern Continental did not respond to a phone call and e-mail.

John Christian, an engineer hired to investigate for the Turnpike Authority, said the bolts used a standard design: Holes were drilled into the tunnel's concrete ceiling and bolts were then inserted, along with pressure-injected epoxy.

He said it was possible that inspectors would find "some generic flaw in the systems that are used for designing these panels."

The increased focus on the bolts came as inspectors, at the Turnpike Authority's direction, began reviewing the city's entire highway system.

The $14.6 billion, long-running and highly troubled Big Dig project buried the city's antiquated central artery and send traffic underneath downtown. The project has been plagued by leaks and other problems linked to faulty construction and oversight, and the state is seeking millions in compensation from its overseers.

Romney, who is considering seeking the 2008 Republican nomination for president, has focused his sharpest criticism on the Turnpike Authority. After the deadly ceiling collapse, he said he would take legal action to oust Amorello as it's chief.

The powerful Boston law firm WilmerHale has agreed to represent the state on a pro bono basis, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said Thursday.

Amorello has refused calls for his resignation, saying, "There's obviously a lot of politics involved."

The connector tunnel's eastbound lanes, meanwhile, are closed indefinitely to ensure safety and to collect more evidence in a possible criminal investigation of the tunnels' designers and builders.

Federal investigators are checking whether companies involved in that area fulfilled their obligations, U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan said.

His office brought the first criminal charges in the trouble-plagued Big Dig project in May against six men who worked for its largest concrete supplier, accusing them of falsifying records to hide the inferior quality of concrete.

"We obviously want to identify any public safety risks ... but also to ensure that what the government paid for — through tax dollars — is in fact what was delivered," Sullivan told The Associated Press.

Avi Mor, of Dr. Mor & Associates, a California-based consulting firm specializing in analysis of construction defects, said if concrete failure was to blame for the collapse of the panel, investigators would likely find pieces of concrete still epoxied to the tie rods.

Reilly said one bolt that failed was a "clean break" and had no concrete attached to it.

Cab driver Steve Past, 45, said his passengers have been jittery about the tunnels since the collapse.

"The drivers aren't so scared, but people sitting in the back seat are scared. Because who knows? Today one piece falls down, tomorrow another piece," he said.