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.