More leaks in Big Dig; officials testify as investigation widens

| 12/2/2004

Massachusetts officials have revealed a new defect in Boston’s Big Dig similar to one that caused the largest water leak in the highway tunnel project, media outlets reported.

The leak was revealed just as state and federal highway officials were preparing to testify to lawmakers about the problems and the leaks they have caused.

The Boston Globe reported in early November that the massive underground highway tunnel system was leaking water to the tune of 26 million gallons a year. Engineers quoted by the newspaper said the repairs could take 10 years and involve lane closures. Engineers also found documents that the firms in charge of construction may have known about the leaks as early as the late 1990s.

The tunnel system was designed to handle 500,000 gallons of water removal a year – about 2 percent of the actual amount removed since last December.

Local media outlets reported in January that one of the tunnels had experienced icing problems that closed lanes in some areas. The Globe report linked those troubles to the leaks.

About two weeks after that report, local media outlets said the leaks were even worse than first thought. Rather than the 400 leaks previously reported, one section of the tunnel, running roughly 1,000 feet, had as many as 700 leaks.

Now, Gov. Mitt Romney has reportedly called for the head of The Big Dig, Matthew Amorello, to resign from his post, the Statehouse News Service reported. Amorello is chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, as well as a former state highway commissioner and former state senator. Amorello did not resign at that time.

The news of the latest series of flaws and associated leaks came as Amorello was scheduled to testify to state lawmakers about the problem.

In addition, Debra S. Ritt, assistant inspector general for Surface and Maritime Programs at the U.S. Department of Transportation, was also scheduled to testify before lawmakers.

“The Authority has reported that 700 tunnel leaks remain in the project’s current inventory, and that the earlier number of leaks it identified and tracked was considerably more,” Ritt said in prepared marks posted on the Internet by the Office of the Inspector General. “Authority officials have said some of the leaks are a normal part of the construction process, while others are construction deficiencies. It is already clear that the Sept. 15th leak was not a normal occurrence.

“There is much about this problem that we do not yet know, including how many leaks there are and their severity; how much it will cost to fix the leaks.”

Ritt recommended that the state create a “small, independent, bipartisan commission” that would determine who was responsible – and who should pay – for the leaks and for repairs. That commission would report back to lawmakers by June 30, 2005.

The Big Dig is the largest construction project of its kind in U.S. history. It was created to take the elevated interstates that once ran into the center of Boston and replace them with wider, higher-capacity underground highways, including new tunnels and bridges to carry traffic over and under the city’s waterways. The Big Dig carries portions of several highways, including Interstate 93 and I-90.