BOSTON—Transportation officials did not tell Gov. Deval Patrick that a corroded 110-pound light fixture crashed onto the roadway of a Big Dig tunnel until Tuesday night, more than five weeks after the incident.
Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan said Thursday that in hindsight he should have notified Patrick earlier, but that he wanted to investigate to see how widespread the problem was. No one was injured when the fixture fell.
"I needed to have a better understanding about what the situation was and we didn't have a good handling on what we were talking about until then," Mullan told The Associated Press. "I probably should have come forward earlier."
Mullan said he told Lt. Gov. Tim Murray several days before Patrick, who has been on a 10-day trade mission to Israel and the United Kingdom. Murray serves as acting governor when Patrick is out of state.
Mullan's call to Patrick came one day before Mullan held a news conference to reveal that the light fixture had fallen.
Mullan is coming under increasing criticism for not telling the public of the corrosion problem with the lights until after the investigation of all 23,000 fixtures scattered throughout the Big Dig tunnels was nearly completed this week.
Murray is defending Mullan's decision not to reveal problem immediately, saying it helped avoid a panic among drivers.
"They don't want to create unnecessary panic when the facts don't warrant it, and I think they moved aggressively," Murray said. "I think they have handled it appropriately."
Patrick spokesman Alex Goldstein said Thursday that after Patrick was told by Mullan about the problem with the light fixtures, the governor "directed Secretary Mullan to notify the public about this issue, and they did so the following day."
Others faulted transportation officials for not immediately notifying the public.
"The administration thought it was OK to keep the public in the dark," said House Minority Leader Brad Jones, R-North Reading. "I think it shows a certain tone deafness as to what has been the collective experience of the commonwealth with the Big Dig."
All the fixtures located over roadways have been inspected and the tunnels are safe for drivers, Mullan said Wednesday.
He also defended the decision to sit on the news after the light fixture fell during the morning commute Feb. 8, saying he wanted to have a better idea of whether it was "an isolated situation or more of a systemic issue."
Workers have inspected 95 percent of the 23,000 light fixtures, including all that are located over roadways, Mullan said. Some corrosion was detected in less than 2 percent of the fixtures, he said.
Each fixture consists of two 8-foot powder-coated aluminum components clamped to the ceiling with 10 stainless-steel clips.
Mullan said that where corrosion was detected in the aluminum sections, the clamps were moved to a non-corroded portion. He said the state is working on a permanent fix for the problem.
Mullan said the corrosion is linked to the installation and manufacturing process combined with the weather and the salt used to treat roads in the winter. The fixture that fell was located on Interstate 93 northbound near the portal of the Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Tunnel.
The state has notified the Federal Highway Administration about the problem and has contacted the manufacturer of the fixtures, NuArt Lighting in Fullerton, Calif.
The fixture is the first lighting element to fall since the $15 billion network of tunnels, bridges and roadways transformed downtown Boston. The Big Dig came to an end in 2007 and was the most expensive highway project in U.S. history, prompted criticism of pork barrel spending and was plagued by cost overruns and design problems, including leaks.
The most serious problem came in July 2006, when several 4,600-pound ceiling panels in another portion of the tunnel system broke free, crushing a passing car. Milena del Valle of Boston, 38, was killed.
In 2008, contractors who worked on the project agreed to pay more than $450 million to settle a lawsuit stemming from the tunnel ceiling collapse and to cover the costs of leaks and design flaws.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded the accident occurred because the wrong type of epoxy was used to hold bolts that anchored the ceiling tiles in place.