Engineer says he can't say if Big Dig tunnels are safe

| 3/15/2005

An independent engineer says he is no longer able to assure that the tunnels making up Boston’s Big Dig are safe, media outlets reported March 15.

Jack Lemley, the engineer, made the warning in a letter he reportedly sent to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, the state agency that oversees the massive underground highway system, formally known as the Central Artery Project.

The Big Dig 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.

The $14.6 billion project – called the largest of its kind ever in the United States – included numerous, massive cost overruns, and the private concerns in charge of the work have drawn the ire of local, state and federal officials.

In late 2004, The Boston Globe began a series of blistering reports about a series of leaks that appeared in the tunnel system. Since the initial report, leaks have been reported in more and more tunnel sections, leading to investigations and legislative hearings.

As of March 15, The Globe reported that leaks, construction faults and damage to fireproofing can be found in roughly 40 sections of the tunnels.

The comments by Lemley, who was brought in by state officials to investigate problems with the project, are only the latest blow to the tunnel project’s waning prestige.

“I am now unable to express an opinion as to the safety of the I-93 portion of the Central Artery,” Lemley wrote in his letter to Masspike, which was delivered March 9. The Globe obtained a copy of the letter. “My modified position is necessary due to a revised understanding of the magnitude of problems that we became aware of following our testimony on November 30, 2004, and the recent failures reported in the local newspapers.”