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Joan Vennochi

Big Dig’s ongoing collapse of credibility

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / August 14, 2011

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WHEN IT comes to the Big Dig, state transportation officials have more than a small sinkhole problem. They have a major credibility problem.

Recent revelations about what state officials euphemistically describe as “a gap filled with water,’’ located 9 feet below the roadway, brought on the latest round of cynicism. The gap poses no risk, according to Richard A. Davey, the general manager of the MBTA, who does not officially take over as transportation secretary until next month.

It would be nice to give him the benefit of the doubt as he assumes a position that spit out predecessors as ferociously as Terry Francona spits out sunflower seeds. Unfortunately, Davey’s “don’t worry, be happy’’ attitude runs up against history - and against experts who question what caused the under-tunnel gap and what structural danger it presents.

The public has been lied to for years concerning the Big Dig’s cost and possible design flaws. Boston’s bad memories about the highway project stretch back to 1982, when the original project cost estimate was pegged at $2.6 billion. By 1998, that estimate had jumped to $10.8 billion. A year later, Big Dig chief James Kerasiotes stepped down for falling to disclose the truth about the ballooning price tag. In 2003, the Interstate 90 connector tunnel and the northbound and southbound lanes of the Interstate 93 tunnel opened. In 2004, leaks sent water pouring into the I-93 tunnel. In 2005, investigators found 169 defective panels in the I-93 tunnel. All these billions in cost overruns and multiple water leaks have generated enough skepticism on their own to flood the Tip O’Neill Tunnel.

But the fatal accident caused by the collapse of a ceiling panel in July 2006 gave people something more than money and incompetence to worry about. Milena Del Valle, a Jamaica Plain mother on her way to Logan Airport, was crushed to death by falling ceiling panels in the connector tunnel leading to the Ted Williams Tunnel, sparking criminal investigations. The next month, Big Dig chief Matthew Amorello was forced out. The Del Valle family ultimately reached a $6 million settlement with the supplier of the epoxy that failed to secure the panel. But a broader public unease remained: a lack of oversight made driving through a tunnel a matter of life or death.

Like an incident earlier this year in which a heavy light fixture fell onto the roadway, the newly revealed sinkhole resurrects some of the old anxieties. According to the state, work crews chemically froze the soil 11 year ago so it would not cave in as they dug into the ground and built the tunnel. The soil contracted as it thawed - twice as much as anticipated. Eventually, the state will fill it. Problem solved, right?

Not exactly. Assorted engineering experts challenged the explanation given by state engineers, who have a long history of not disclosing everything they know about Big Dig design and construction problems. US Representative Stephen F. Lynch is calling for a federal investigation. Cost is also a matter of concern, since the state has already spent $3.5 million addressing the problem, with another $11.5 million budgeted.

This flawed but generally well-functioning engineering marvel continues to cause problems for governors who inherit the bureaucracy that oversees it. The administration of Governor Deval Patrick has suffered from a similar litany of credibility problems. Most recently, Jeffrey Mullan announced that he was leaving as transportation secretary. He won praise for implementing a 2009 transportation reform law that created a mega-agency out of several other transportation entities. But under Mullan’s tenure, delay in informing the public about the light fixture incident brought back all the bad memories of lies and the government’s long-running lack of accountability regarding the Big Dig.

Davey may be trying to start fresh by getting the latest bad news out about the sinkhole. But he is up against history, the recent light fixture fiasco, and the scary memory of what happens when the people in charge of public safety fail to look out for the public. He and Patrick have a lot to prove before people believe them.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.