Tag Archives: Boston

Tobin Bridge rates ‘fair’ in corrosion reports

State-issued inspection reports released on Friday in the wake of a corroded light fixture tumbling onto a ramp of the Maurice J. Tobin Memorial Bridge show that the 62-year-old structure is in “fair” condition with some “severe” structural deficiencies.

The structure of the bridge, which is currently undergoing a $45 million repainting and rehabilitation, was downgraded from a rating of 6, or “satisfactory”condition, in a 2009 state Department of Transportation inspection report to a 5, or “fair” condition, in its most recent 2011 report.

“We base our inspections on the overall rating of the bridge. While some elements of the structure are showing greater signs of wear … the structure as a whole is sound,” said MassDOT spokeswoman Cyndi Roy. “If the rating were to decrease to a 4 (or poor) we would then begin annual inspections of the bridge, versus the current schedule of every two years — the national standard.”

The area where the bridge deteriorated the most from 2009 and 2011 was in its girders and beams, now rated as having “severe/major deficiency.” Deteriorated and cracked concrete parts of the bridge’s substructure columns also were given the same “severe” rating in both the 2009 and 2011 reports.

“It’s not totally unacceptable to have some level of corrosion, especially given the bridge’s location right on the harbor, where the mist and salt lend to creating some corrosion,” Roy added.

The DOT released the bridge reports after holding a press conference to announce that crews overnight Thursday removed seven spotlights from the bridge after one of the lights — there are total of 18 on the bridge — broke free from a bracket under the Tobin’s upper deck and came crashing down onto an approach ramp to Route 1 in Charlestown.

SOURCE: http://www.bostonherald.com/news/regional/view/20220721tobin_bridge_rates_fair_in_reports/

Big Dig needs $54 light fix – corroded tunnel fittings must be replaced

The state’s top highway official says all the light fixtures in the Big Dig tunnels must be replaced, a $54 million effort made necessary by design or manufacturing defects that have led to dangerous corrosion.

The project, expected to begin next year, will cause frequent lane closings in the tunnels for up to two years, a headache for motorists. The work will be done largely at night, with traffic diverted to surface roads.

Since a light fixture fell onto the northbound lane of the Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. Tunnel in February 2011, engineers have temporarily shored up the 8-foot light fixtures in the 7.5 mile tunnel system with plastic ties. Now, after a year of study, the state’s highway administrator, Frank DePaola, is recommending a complete overhaul, the most expensive of several alternatives.

“The preferred alternative is a complete replacement,’’ DePaola told the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board of directors Wednesday.

“The existing fixtures continue to corrode,’’ he said. “We could have more incidents. For that reason, I think it is best for all of us that we remove the fixtures.’’

“We just have to do it,’’ added Richard A. Davey, the state transportation secretary and DePaola’s boss, agreeing it is a safety issue.

Though the replacement project will be expensive, DePaola said the new fixtures offer opportunities for savings over the long term from energy efficiency. He said the more energy-efficient LED lights are expected to cost $2.5 million a year less in electric bills than the current fluorescent lights.

He also said the new fixtures will not be susceptible to the moisture that apparently caused the corrosion in the existing fixtures. The new light casings will be sealed plastic fixtures, rather than an assembly of removable component parts that require maintenance. When the new lights burn out, the entire fixture will be replaced, he said.

Money for the overhaul is expected to be drawn from a maintenance fund set up in 2008 with the proceeds from a nearly $500 million settlement with Big Dig contractors Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff and others for shoddy work on the $15 billion project, which has been plagued by problems ranging from water leaks to a fatal ceiling collapse in 2006.

Before the state can begin the project, however, the transportation board must approve the plan. In addition, the federal government must approve use of the Big Dig settlement fund for the light replacement project.

Transportation officials still have not determined who is to blame for the corrosion that so weakened one fixture that it fell and left dozens of others badly compromised, DePaola said. They initially focused on the company that manufactured the lights, NuArt of California, but the company was bought out by another firm and discontinued years ago.

“We are working with our attorneys and engineering consultants to determine responsibility,’’ DePaola said, adding, “You can’t get damages from a company out of business.’’

If the state is able to recover damages, that money will be used to replenish the maintenance fund, which now has a balance of about $393 million, he said.

If the lighting plan is approved, as expected, tunnel closings related to the overhaul could begin in about a year, transportation officials said. Crews will close either the northbound or southbound side of the O’Neill Tunnel at 11 p.m. and reopen it at 6 a.m.

Closings will also be necessary at the Ted Williams and Interstate 90 Connector tunnels.

Such closings, however, have already begun in the O’Neill Tunnel for washing and other maintenance and will continue for about a year, transportation officials said.

Wednesday’s announcement caps a turbulent year in Big Dig history as issues related to water in the tunnels forced out several top state transportation officials.

The Globe reported last year that the Big Dig’s chief engineer, Helmut Ernst, wrote in a memo to his bosses that constant water leaks in the tunnels were causing safety problems and at least $150 million in damage, including corroded electrical systems and flooded air vents, and even damage to the enormous steel girders that support the O’Neill Tunnel.

In his memo, Ernst wrote that “leaks greatly contribute to the moist corrosive tunnel environment,’’ especially when combined with road salt.

But Ernst attributed the fallen light to a much larger problem: the salty ground water that seeps in through cracks and other openings in the tunnels.

However, Ernst was fired in August after saying publicly that Big Dig engineers tried to avoid putting into writing discussions of problems in the tunnels. In fact, Ernst’s team of engineers filed no reports on the light fixture collapse after it happened.

On Wednesday, DePaola acknowledged leaks as an ongoing and permanent issue.

“We continue to work on the leaks,’’ DePaola said. “I think we are slowly reducing the amount of leaks in the tunnel, but there will always be some infiltration. And we will always be dealing with sealing off leaks.’’

SOURCE: http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2012/04/05/big_dig_tunnels_need_54m_light_replacement_mass_officials_say/?page=1

Chief Big Dig engineer is fired over light fixture controversy

Helmut Ernst, the embattled chief engineer of the Big Dig, has been fired, the state transportation secretary said today, as the fallout continued from the controversy over a light fixture collapse earlier this year in one of the project’s tunnels.

Ernst had already been reprimanded and suspended for his role in the state’s failure to notify the public for more than a month after a corroded 110-pound light fixture collapsed onto the highway in the O’Neill Tunnel on Feb. 8.

Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan said the department had finished a review of Ernst’s performance on Friday and concluded he could no longer serve as the District 6 highway director, the former title for his job as a top engineer in charge of the Big Dig tunnels.

Mullan said he offered Ernst other jobs in the transportation department, but Ernst, who has worked as an engineer for the state highway system for two decades, declined to take them.

“As a result of that, we terminated Helmut’s employment at the DOT today,” Mullan told reporters at the state’s highway operations center in South Boston. “It was clear that we lost confidence — I lost confidence — in him, and given some of the issues, someone in a leadership position like that, I would expect more,” Mullan said.

Tom Broderick, currently the chief engineer in the highway division, will replace Ernst while the department searches for a permanent replacement.

The collapse revealed widespread corrosion in lights throughout the 7.5-mile Big Dig tunnel system — and the delay by state officials in notifying the public sparked outrage and concern about the tunnels’ safety.

In an interview in July with the Globe, Ernst said his team of engineers filed no written report about the collapsed light fixtures despite state policy requiring documentation of safety issues. Ernst admitted his engineers had been wary about writing things down since the 2006 collapse of a Big Dig ceiling panel that killed a woman.

“After all the depositions in the ceiling collapse case, we just meet and talk about it … What’s the point of putting it in writing?” he said. He said engineers had been “trained not to.”

Ernst claimed he had called his boss, Frank Tramontozzi — who was forced to resign in March as highway administrator for his own role in mishandling the light fixture collapse — the day after the collapse. Tramontozzi said he didn’t learn about the collapse until Feb. 28.

Ernst also claimed he brought up the collapse at a Feb. 14 senior staff meeting. But seven other staffers, questioned by a staff lawyer at Mullan’s request, said they didn’t remember him mentioning it.

Mullan said he was not pushing out a whistleblower, who had spoken out about problems in the Big Dig. “I don’t think that’s related to it all,” he said.

He said there would not be a chilling effect on other employees, discouraging them from speaking out. “No,” he said. “It just didn’t work out, and sometimes it doesn’t work out.”

Mullan has said he plans to leave his own job by the end of the year, but said today he has not settled on the exact date when he plans to step down.

SOURCE: http://www.boston.com/Boston/metrodesk/2011/08/chief-big-dig-engineer-forced-out/XXfFA4dQ3daU1pNdCO4KHJ/index.html

Another corroded fixture found – Big Dig lighting problems continue

A work crew found another extensively corroded light fixture in a Big Dig tunnel last Thursday, state transportation officials said on Friday, five months after an identical 110-pound fixture came crashing down in the Tip O’Neill tunnel.

Workers driving through a ramp connecting Leverett Circle to the O’Neill Tunnel Thursday noticed a light was vibrating from a nearby jet fan and was askew. When they looked more closely, they found that five of the 10 clips that secured the light to the ceiling were corroded, leaving the light only partially secured.

Transportation Secretary Jeffrey B. Mullan said the corroded fixture discovered Thursday had been inspected in May as part of a systemwide review that found widespread corrosion in the Big Dig tunnels. But Mullan could not say why the corrosion on the Leverett Circle light fixture was not discovered during the earlier inspection.

“We’re working it. I don’t know. I don’t know exactly,’’ he said. “I know it was next to a jet fan. I’ve got my engineering team working on it right now.’’

Workers removed the corroded light fixture discovered Thursday and then reattached it using plastic straps, a remedy that has been used on many lights in the Big Dig’s tunnels since the light fixture collapse in February. Of the system’s 25,000 light fixtures, more than 9,000 have been reinforced with straps.

Mullan, whose department came under criticism for not telling the public about the fallen light fixture for more than a month, announced the latest findings yesterday, unprompted, to reporters who were inquiring about his decision to step down later this year. The Massachusetts Transportation Department also posted a full report about the situation online yesterday.

Earlier this week, Mullan suspended the Big Dig’s top engineer, Helmut Ernst, after Ernst told the Globe that he and his colleagues were trained not to leave a paper trail about safety issues in the tunnels for fear of litigation.

The incident report suggested that forced air from the jet fan may have caused the Leverett Circle light to vibrate more than normal. The report also suggested that the testing conducted in May, which involved prying loose the clips that connect light fixtures to the ceiling, may have weakened those clips. That type of testing was suspended later in the month “because of the potential for damage’’ to the clips, the incident report showed.

SOURCE: http://articles.boston.com/2011-07-16/news/29781932_1_light-fixture-tunnel-corrosion

Between the lines of the Big Dig lights saga…

Sunday’s report in the Sunday Globe about the reaction – and delays thereof – within the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to a falling ceiling light in a Big Dig tunnel was eye-opening on its face.

There was the recounting of a Central Artery maintenance worker finding a 8-foot-long, 110-pound light lying on the road in the middle of I-93 North – and throwing it into the back of his pickup truck as if it were a McDonald’s bag or some other piece of meaningless trash.

There was the story of a Big Dig electrician who saw the scrapped light the next day, realized what it was and what it represented, and alerted the chain of command so inspections elsewhere could begin.

Then there was the re-creation of email traffic surrounding the discovery and inspections, and the questions about whether MassDOT reacted with appropriate haste and proper notification to the governor and the public about the unfolding problem.

But outside that main narrative, which has emerged in bits and pieces since March, there were revelations that raise leadership concerns for Governor Deval Patrick, a key Cabinet agency, and his administration more broadly.

*There are millions of gallons of seawater infiltrating the Big Dig every year.

Some of this was expected, given the thin-wall construction technique used to wedge the Central Artery tunnels into a narrow thruway, as well as their proximity to Boston Harbor and the fact they traverse backfilled areas that once were in the harbor itself.

Designers took water into account, building in drainage lines and powerful pumps to remove it.

But 2 million gallons of seawater – with all its corrosive properties – just last year from an area near the North End? And another 1.2 million gallons from an area along the Fort Point Channel? Some 400,000 gallons at Leverett Circle?

The drains and pumps were designed, in part, to remove water sprayed on the tunnel walls to remove automotive grim and winter road salt; now they are working hard not to remove road salt, but salty seawater.

*It may cost $200 million to rewire the tunnels and replace the 25,0000 lights.

For some perspective, that is roughly what Jeremy Jacobs spent building the TD Garden that sits between the Zakim Bridge, which is proving to be the Big Dig’s proudest accomplishment, and the southbound entrance to the O’Neill Tunnel, which is turning out to be one of its most embarrassing products.

Yesterday’s report showed that MassDOT leaders are already weighing tapping the more than $400 million Big Dig maintenance trust fund. It was set up in 2008 when Attorney General Martha Coakley settled with Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff for civil and criminal liabilities stemming from the 2006 tunnel ceiling panel collapse that killed Milena Del Valle, as well as to cover other defects in the project.

If that cost estimate holds, replacing the overhead lighting system could consume nearly half the trust fund – when there also appear to be serious leak issues with the tunnels themselves.

One of the central problems appears to be the designers’ decision to put dissimilar metals – the stainless steel light clips and the coated aluminum bracket to which they are affixed – in direct contact.

That decision appears to violate Engineering 101, as you can find by using the words “dissimilar metals” in a Google search.

The first response begins: “Galvanic corrosion (some times called dissimilar metal corrosion) is the process by which the materials in contact with each other oxidizes or corrodes.”

*There now is a very public breach in collegiality, and dispute over safety protocol, at the top of MassDOT. There also is the suggestion by a former top official that someone is lying in this affair.

One of the central figures in yesterday’s story and the whole issue – Helmut Ernst, the chief MassDOT engineer in the region that includes the Central Artery – revealed that Big Dig engineers have curtailed their use of written records in the aftermath of the Del Valle episode for fear they will become evidence in lawsuits.

This change in attitude comes despite state policy requiring the engineers to make written reports of potential safety problems, which will allow email and text message alerts to move up the chain of command.

The central allegation in the entire light episode is that that notification did not happen in a timely manner, and even when it finally occurred, the bad news was soft-pedaled.

Ernst also made several other statements.

The engineer said that he verbally briefed Frank Tramontozzi, who was his supervisor while the state highway administrator is on leave, and that he also briefed the highway division’s senior staff nearly three weeks later.

Tramontozzi denies any such briefing, and records kept by one attendee at the senior staff meeting do not confirm it.

Phone records obtained by the Globe also show that Tramontozzi called Ernst on Feb. 9 – the day Ernst claimed he called Tramontozzi to alert him of the light problem.

The question of who called whom, and what was discussed, is especially relevant because Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan cited Tramontozzi’s alleged delayed response in announcing March 25 that he had accepted Tramontozzi’s resignation.

Nine days earlier, Mullan had sat beside Tramontozzi at a news conference called to allay public concerns about the issue.

Elsewhere in the story, Ernst appeared to second-guess Mullan’s decision by telling the Globe that no one should have been fired for the incident, and that the episode will cause engineers to be even more wary of taking action in the future.

Should the public ask, given those self-admitted concerns, whether he should remain as engineer in the MassDOT region that includes the Big Dig – a major piece of transportation infrastructure with safety concerns?

*Mullan’s relationship with current and former key players in his Cabinet agency appears in question.

Ernst’s statements to the media, and the revelations they encompass, are good for public disclosure but arguably less-than-good for institutional cohesion.

Ernst told the Globe that engineers have curtailed putting things in writing because of litigation concerns; Mullan told the Globe that is not the case.

Boiled down, an employee and his boss are at odds over what might be considered an important safety protocol.

Mullan said in a follow-up statement yesterday: “Any inference that safety concerns in our tunnels … are neglected or not reported is false. “

Tramontozzi, meanwhile, alleges that as he departed, Mullan seemed amenable to him getting credit for 10 weeks of unused vacation time, which would allow him to qualify for a state pension. Yet when Tramontozzi left, he says a state human resources official denied him the credit, for fear that it would trigger a negative news story.

Can’t basic payroll records resolve whether the time is owed?

Meanwhile, Joe Landolfi, who oversees Mullan’s public communication on a direct assignment from the governor himself, says Tramontozzi was never told that helping him qualify for a pension would trigger “a bad news story.”

The episode prompts questions about who is telling the truth – and calling the shots – inside the MassDOT.

Those who know Mullan know his blue-collar work and management ethic.

He is a son of Worcester and a graduate of UMass-Amherst who has given up a better-paying law career for public service. If the state work doesn’t take enough time, he serves his hometown of Milton addressing zoning issues as a member of the Board of Appeals.

He walks his own dog, skips lunch to keep working, and spends dinner time returning phone calls and answering emails.

Mullan is known to study leadership, and to argue that society needs more strong leaders. He’s also known to believe that petty controversies dogging MassDOT and agencies such as the MBTA distract from the broad scope of transportation reform embraced by the governor.

That includes an accelerated bridge replacement program to reduce a dangerous backlog of work, reconfiguring Massport and the MBTA, all while overseeing consolidation of the state’s unwieldy transportation bureaucracy into a single MassDOT.

Yet the issues raised in yesterday’s story seem to push the light fixture episode more toward the serious than to the trivial.

And a even a casual reader doesn’t have to look hard to find leadership questions.

SOURCE:  http://www.boston.com/Boston/politicalintelligence/2011/07/between-the-lines-the-big-dig-lights-saga/HjaYI7gwjeW6HCr7k26FTO/index.html