The Magazine

Bad Days for Big Dig

But a good opportunity for Governor Mitt Romney.

Aug 14, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 45 • By SHAWN MACOMBER
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Boston

IN 2003, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony supposedly signaling the end of the "Big Dig"--the nearly two-decade-long project to ease Boston traffic by routing the city's major thoroughfares underground and underwater via a series of tunnels--Massachusetts Turnpike Authority (MTA) chairman Matthew Amorello, the project's supervisor, insisted that the Dig rivaled "anything in the history of the world built by men."

Maybe. It's no doubt true that the largest public works project in the nation's history has grown corpulent on federal largesse, soaring from an estimated price tag of $2.2 billion in 1983 to somewhere near $15 billion today. And $15 billion hasn't yet bought a tunnel system free from hundreds of leaks (including a monster 300-gallon-per-minute gusher), falling debris, collapsing walls, and rampant fraud--ranging from the delivery of some 5,000 truckloads of degraded concrete to tunnel construction sites to the Boston Herald's recent revelation that construction workers "used duct tape to temporarily secure bolts now coming loose."

It gets worse. On the evening of July 10, as 38-year-old newlywed Milena Del Valle drove with her husband through the I-90 Connector tunnel--one of the Dig's major routes--on their way to Logan airport to meet a relative, twelve tons of concrete fell from the tunnel's ceiling, crushing the Del Valles' Honda and killing Milena instantly. After years of hammering away at Big Dig ineptitude, Republican governor Mitt Romney now seems imbued with a bit of Churchillian prescience (though perhaps on a less grand scale). Meanwhile, Romney's opponents have run for cover as the purported lame duck, with a mere five months left in office, promises action in the form of a "stem to stern safety audit," the objective of which, he insists, is not to "cast blame."

Perhaps more important, Romney's success--or failure--in bringing order to the Big Dig has implications far beyond Boston. In his 2002 gubernatorial campaign, Romney touted his shepherding of the scandal-ridden Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games from near-disaster to great success, a story he recounts in his 2004 book Turnaround. The question facing Romney now is whether a similar "turnaround" of the Big Dig--or at least the beginning of one, considering the scope of the problem--could become the key to his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.

Romney dismisses any partisan talk. "This is about engineering, not politics," he said in an interview last week. His case is bolstered by the fact that his primary adversary thus far has been MTA chairman Amorello--a fellow Republican. Still, there is a political side to Romney's new role in the Dig, and so far it seems to be to the governor's advantage.

Perhaps realizing this, his opponents are on the attack. In a recent press release, Massachusetts Democratic party chairman Philip Johnston derided the "incompetence" of the Romney administration, calling it "mind-boggling." The release went on to say that Romney's "performance last week [responding to the Big Dig crisis] was great theater but obviously lacking in substance." Meantime, Massachusetts Democratic congressman Michael Capuano told the Boston Globe, "If by next week we don't see the outlines of the 'stem to stern' review, we can question whether we'll ever get one"--as if Democrats have ever shown the will to rein in "Tip's Tunnel," one of the Dig's nicknames (after former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, another Massachusetts Democrat and one of the project's most vocal champions).

There is the danger--and, in some quarters, the hope--that Romney's getting involved with the Dig might damage his nascent presidential campaign. A recent Boston Phoenix headline pondered: "Mitt's Katrina: Could the Big Dig collapse doom Romney's presidential dreams?" And political consultant Dick Morris went so far as to tell the Boston Herald that Romney should have kept the Big Dig "at arm's length," because the governor "is now going to be held responsible for every delay, every cost overrun, and every construction defect."

Such sentiments, however, do not reflect the reality on the ground. The Big Dig's reputation precedes it in an exceedingly negative way. Few here will assign Romney blame for a mess two decades in the making. Instead, after years of inaction, people see Romney on television nearly every day, articulating step-by-step solutions, taking responsibility for their implementation in press conference after press conference, describing in detail the issues at hand, showcasing an almost bizarrely detailed understanding of engineering minutiae, and even drawing diagrams on the fly.

This isn't the first time Romney has tried to take on the Dig. In early 2003 and late 2004, he attempted to create an independent commission to recover the cost of faulty work and investigate tunnel leaks. No dice, said the legislature. In March 2005, Romney petitioned the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts for an advi sory opinion on how he might legally remove Amorello from the MTA, complaining the bureaucrat was "secretive" and had resisted "oversight of his own board." The request was denied for lack of "urgency."

Apparently, that urgency has now made itself manifest. Within days of Del Valle's death, the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature took a near unanimous U-turn and handed Big Dig inspections over to Romney. Likewise, the Supreme Judicial Court soon gave Romney the green light to remove Amorello. The chairman chose to resign before he could be fired.

As Romney correctly estimates, "public trust in the Turnpike Authority is near zero," mostly, he believes, because the agency "is frequently dismissive of the failures of their project."

Indeed, whatever the latest disaster, Bostonians could always count on an upbeat press conference. "Let me start by assuring you that the I-93 tunnels are safe and structurally sound," Amorello cooed after one nonfatal crisis. When a former Big Dig engineer came forward to say recently uncovered structural defects made it impossible for him to vouch for the safety of the I-93 tunnel, project engineer John Christian told a local ABC reporter, "The tunnels are safe, they are quite safe, and it is outrageous and irresponsible to suggest otherwise."

Even in the face of last month's death, Amorello told the New York Times that "these tunnels are safe" and insisted, "This was a horrible, horrible event, and it was an anomaly." Days later, tests showed more than 1,100 bolts in the tunnels could not be trusted to secure ceiling panels.

"Early on, anyone looking at the Big Dig saw that it was a management horror show," Romney told me. "It has been grossly under-managed, with huge cost overruns and extraordinary delays. What we began to find out was that it also had apparently cut corners and not been subjected to the kind of rigorous oversight that you'd expect in the world's largest public works project."

"When I learned that a ceiling panel had collapsed and killed a human being," Romney went on, "it followed the same pattern, but the human cost had now reached a new level. What was before a financial embarrassment became a human tragedy."

He described how he plans to handle the problem. "The best way to make something better is to expose it to the disinfectant of sunlight," Romney says. "My approach in these kinds of settings is to open the doors, open the windows, let the light in, let the public see what's going on. In my experience, people always feel better knowing about the real problems than guessing what those problems might be."

Even Romney's friends say the governor has his work cut out for him. "This is going to make the Olympics look easy," Massachusetts House minority leader Brad Jones, a Republican, says. (In a strange coincidence, while overseeing the 2002 Olympics, Romney also had to respond to a ceiling collapse in the Olympic village.)

Regardless of how the Big Dig affects Romney's presidential aspirations, though, the problem will not leave office with him. Local officials--indeed, the entire state--will need to fight a growing reputation for out-of-control, even deadly, public works. "Aside from the safety issues, which are of paramount concern, in the longterm this isn't a great marketing tool for the Commonwealth," Jones says. "'Please come to Boston, just avoid the tunnels,' is a hard sell."

Shawn Macomber is a Phillips Foundation fellow. His website is www.shawnmacomber.com.