New panel sought on Big Dig refunds

| Monday, December 20, 2004

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, angered by hundreds of leaks in the Big Dig tunnels and lagging cost-recovery efforts, filed legislation Thursday, Dec. 16, to create an independent commission with expanded legal powers to go after contractors responsible for millions of dollars in mistakes.

Without stronger recovery efforts, Romney said the federal government might withhold $81 million in Big Dig funding next year.

Creation of the panel would open the possibility of greater scrutiny of management by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which appointed the team now in charge of recovering costs and investigating construction errors.

Romney met with U.S. Transportation Inspector General Kenneth Mead in Washington, DC, Thursday to discuss cost recovery efforts and leak problems plaguing the $14.6 billion project.

Mead’s office has harshly criticized the cost-recovery results of a Turnpike Authority team headed by retired judge Edward Ginsburg, which has reclaimed $3.5 million from contractors and filed another $163 million in lawsuits.

The governor’s proposal would take control of pursuing the funds away from the turnpike. Romney proposes replacing Ginsburg’s team with a five-member commission, created by the Legislature, which could subpoena witnesses and court documents.

Mead issued a statement applauding the proposal.

“It is quite specific and would create an independent commission to expeditiously determine the parties responsible for these leaks and ensure that they, and not the taxpayers, bear the costs of repairs,” Mead said in a statement.

The federal government has funded $8.5 billion of the Big Dig costs and would get a percentage of any refunds, The Boston Globe reported.

The two-decade construction has been riddled with embarrassing episodes and cost overruns. The Big Dig – the most expensive highway construction in U.S. history – buried Interstate 93 in tunnels underneath downtown Boston, and connected the Massachusetts Turnpike to Logan Airport.

Since September, when an 8-inch breach in a wall panel sent water gushing onto the roadway, hundreds of smaller leaks have been found. Turnpike officials have said no state or federal funds would be used to repair the leaks.

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