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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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.