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Former manager James J. Kerasiotes says that his demands to keep the Big Dig on budget never involved shortcuts on safety.
Former manager James J. Kerasiotes says that his demands to keep the Big Dig on budget never involved shortcuts on safety. (1996 File/ The Boston Globe)

The real builder of the Big Dig

Tunnel collapse focuses attention on Kerasiote's tumultuous tenure

Email|Print| Text size + By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / August 3, 2006

Now that Governor Mitt Romney has forced out Matthew J. Amorello as chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, scrutiny is beginning to turn to the tumultuous reign of an even stronger-willed Big Dig official, former Turnpike Authority chairman James J. Kerasiotes.

Perhaps no one is more closely connected to the building of the tunnel and highway system than Kerasiotes, who oversaw the project as the state's commissioner of public works from 1991 to 1992, secretary of transportation from 1992 to 1997, and chairman of the Turnpike Authority from 1996 until he was forced to resign in 2000 because of hidden cost overruns.

In his memoirs, Governor Paul Cellucci said Kerasiotes would be remembered fondly as the ``The Builder of the Big Dig." But Kerasiotes's legacy was never that simple. And with the July 10 death of Milena Del Valle, a Jamaica Plain mother of three who was crushed when concrete ceiling panels fell on the car in which she was a passenger in the Interstate 90 connector, Kerasiotes's abrasive management style, slashing of the transportation workforce, and relentless focus on the project's cost and schedule are coming under sharper scrutiny.

Now living a quiet life out of the public eye as owner of a professional recruitment firm in downtown Boston, Kerasiotes, 52, said he has no idea why the tunnel ceiling collapsed. He said he heard about the tragedy while driving to work the next morning on Interstate 90 near West Newton.

``I'm as baffled as everyone else," Kerasiotes said in a telephone interview last Friday, speaking of the tunnel collapse. ``I'm not sure anyone has the answers right now, but in time I hope we're going to find out."

Construction of nearly all the major pieces of the Big Dig -- and certainly some portions that have been problematic -- began and many were completed under Kerasiotes's tenure. All 12 tube sections for the Ted Williams Tunnel were lowered to the harbor floor in 1993. In 1996, crews built the slurry walls in the Interstate 93 tunnels, which sprang leaks in 2004. And installation of the apparently faulty tunnel ceiling in the Interstate 90 connector began in 1999.

As the Big Dig chief, Kerasiotes said, he didn't get involved in detailed engineering items like the plan to use bolts secured with epoxy to hold up the 4,500-pound concrete ceiling tiles. Investigators are examining whether the bolt system failures caused the ceiling to fall. Kerasiotes said he only inserted his judgment on large project decisions. Since Del Valle's death, investigators have determined that 10 ceiling panels came loose. They have also found that three of the 20 bolts that were supposed to have held the slab that fell on Del Valle had no epoxy on them at all, while others recovered from the scene had an uneven distribution of epoxy.

``Those kinds of issues were never brought up to my level," Kerasiotes said. ``The only time you ever had technical review was on a matter of making a change: We're going to eliminate a ramp, that sort of thing."

He considered himself the project's chief taskmaster, responsible for demanding on-time and on-budget construction from the project's private management consortium, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff. And he defended his tough focus on cost and schedule as the only to way ensure that the project would succeed when many doubted it could ever be built.

As for his reputation as a difficult boss, Kerasiotes said: ``I never expected anything from anyone that I wouldn't expect of myself. And what's pushing? The only thing we ever did is take the timeframes [Bechtel] put in place and not let those timeframes get out of control. . . . It was never a matter of us trying to speed up the construction. It was a matter of us trying to keep the schedules."

Kerasiotes, the burly son of a restaurateur, inspired considerable fear on Beacon Hill. He was known as a true believer in small government, a manager who readily fired employees whom he considered lazy or superfluous. He kept a toy hatchet on his desk. In 1992, Martin Linsky, a top aide to Governor William F. Weld, sent Weld a confidential memo calling Kerasiotes ``scary" and ``intimidating."

``He was a drill sergeant the likes of which I've never seen in the public sector," said Harold Hestnes, a founding member of the Artery Business Committee and former aide to Governor John A. Volpe in the 1960s. In the 1990s, Hestnes and Kerasiotes met for occasional lunches at Locke-Ober to discuss progress on the Big Dig. ``He was a tough taskmaster to contractors and everyone else that stood in the way of moving the project forward," Hestnes said. ``Whether it was excessive or not, whether it caused a backslash, that remains for others to judge."

Since the collapse, former governor Michael S. Dukakis and his Big Dig chief, Frederick P. Salvucci, have both said in separate interviews that the Weld administration's focus on pushing much of the Big Dig engineering work to private firms, while reducing the size of state workforce, may have hurt quality on the project.

Kerasiotes's tough-guy approach alienated some officials who should have been his allies. Anne Larner, who was executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board from 1985 to 1997, recalled once having to send Kerasiotes a request under the federal Freedom of Information Act to get what she described as a routine Big Dig financial document.

``The emphasis and all the rhetoric was `on time' and `on budget,' " Larner said. ``The way he tended, at least in public, to manage -- whether it was highway issues, the T, or the Big Dig -- was to develop a simplistic mantra and to repeat it again and again and again, whether it was establishing a myth or a goal or something to really focus on. It was a very focused message repeated in 50 different ways but always the same premise and pushing and pushing."

Linsky said it is important to put Kerasiotes's approach in the context of an era when few in state government were certain that Massachusetts could pull off a public works project of the scale and complexity of the Big Dig.

``Everyone appreciated his management style, because it was felt that it needed a very firm hand," Linksy said. ``He was very forceful in his personal interactions, he was very clear about what he wanted, and he expected people to produce."

Kerasiotes said he worked well with Bechtel /Parsons Brinckerhoff officials. But union officials said they frequently butted heads with him and said he ignored concerns of white-collar and blue-collar workers.

``We had a lot of complaints relative to his management philosophy, and our engineers were very concerned that they weren't listened to, relative to issues of safety and materials and construction," said Mary Richards, who was a top official with the Massachusetts Organization of Scientists and Engineers in the 1990s.

Kerasiotes said he never ignored concerns about safety.

``If anybody ever came in the door and said we have an issue, one thing the public and everyone else would understand, you've got to spend what it takes if it means we're not going to have problems," Kerasiotes said.

His tenure in government ended abruptly in April 2000 when federal investigators released a scathing audit of the Big Dig that found he had intentionally hid a cost overrun totaling $1.4 billion. Cellucci asked Kerasiotes to resign, which cleared the way for his secretary of administration and finance, Andrew S. Natsios, to assume control of the Big Dig.

In recent weeks, Kerasiotes said he hasn't talked to Amorello, though he watched Amorello's resignation on television. ``I saw parallels with my own experience at the time, and quite frankly I was shocked that he stayed as long as he did and he took as many punches as he did," he said.

``When I left, I did some soul-searching about my experience and what it meant to me and how I felt about closing that chapter," he said, ``and I'm quite content and much happier since I've been out."

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.

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