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More defects found in Big Dig tunnel; governor seeks control of inspections

BOSTON – Inspectors on Thursday quadrupled the number of possible ceiling bolt problems in a Big Dig tunnel where a woman was crushed by falling concrete, adding to the urgency of the growing debate over who should ensure the safety of the troubled project.The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority said inspectors found additional bolt assemblies that were separating from 3-ton concrete roof panels, raising the number of potential defects to 240, compared with previous inspections that found 60 defects. The earlier problems were enough for officials to order a sweeping review of every roadway, tunnel and bridge in Boston’s entire highway system.Michael Lewis, director of the Big Dig, said inspectors found 68 suspect bolt assemblies over the westbound lanes of a connector tunnel providing the main route to Logan Airport. Forty-five more were discovered in a lane carrying carpool traffic, as well as 69 in ramps connecting two interstate highways.Gov. Mitt Romney filed emergency legislation Thursday to take control over inspections and when to reopen the tunnel, which has been closed for three days. The governor has also called for the resignation of the head of the Turnpike Authority, which currently oversees inspections of the Big Dig, the nation’s most expensive highway project.”When it comes to an issue of inspecting the tunnel system, to have the person who’s been responsible for it for the last several years say, ‘I’m going to inspect it’ and tell us, ‘It’s now safe,’ that’s not enough,” the governor said. “The public wants to see an independent inspection effort.”He added: “There should no longer be any doubt that the Turnpike Authority has failed to do its job effectively.”Lawmakers passed the governor’s plan late Thursday. Romney planned to sign it Friday.Lewis said the road may remain closed for weeks, until federal officials review the panels and workers fix any needing repair. “It will be reopened in segments, not all at once,” he said.On Wednesday, Attorney General Tom Reilly said the contractor and state officials were warned of problems with the tunnel ceiling as far back as 1999, when five bolts came out during tests. But it remained unclear Thursday what, if anything, was done to resolve those problems.The panels provided a dropped ceiling to assist in ventilation, but experts have questioned whether they needed to be so heavy. As the tunnel continues to undergo inspection, authorities are considering whether it would be feasible to remove the ceiling panels and leave the large fans above them exposed indefinitely.Also Thursday, the Massachusetts congressional delegation signed a letter asking the National Transportation Safety Board to lead the investigation, saying it is one of the few agencies without any apparent involvement in the project that would pose a conflict of interest.”The most important issue here is safety,” said Rep. Michael Capuano, a Massachusetts Democrat who organized the joint letter signed by the state’s 12 members of Congress. “We want to make sure that we got what we paid for and the tunnel is safe.”Romney’s legislation will give the executive branch the authority to oversee inspections of the failed ceiling system in the tunnel, which has been closed since the accident Monday night that killed 38-year-old Milena Del Valle and injured her husband, who was able to crawl out of the mangled car.The bill also provides for a $20 million safety audit of the Big Dig project, which has been plagued by leaks, falling debris and other problems linked to faulty construction. The state is seeking millions in compensation from companies that managed the project.Romney warned: “At some point, the pressure builds and builds and builds, and the public gets angry enough, that they say, ‘You know what? This really is wrong.’ The governor said the process “is reaching a boiling point, and hopefully steam will begin to rise very soon.”‘Top lawmakers sided with Romney.”The governor feels and we feel it’s an emergency situation,” said House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi.Senate President Robert Travaglini stopped short of calling for Matthew Amorello’s resignation as head of the Turnpike Authority but said he should give “serious consideration” to a proposal for him to remain involved only as a member of the Turnpike Board.Later Thursday, Amorello told reporters he would accept independent inspections, but refused to step aside. “I have taken an oath of office to serve as chairman for the Turnpike Authority until July 2007.”The governor has accused Amorello of being “secretive” and of resisting oversight of the agency, which is beyond the direct control of the executive branch.The governor has also said Amorello refused to share information with the Turnpike Board, which itself has been the subject of a battle for political control between Romney, a Republican who is mulling a 2008 presidential run, and the Democratic-controlled Legislature.Amorello insisted Wednesday that his agency had “been cooperative in the exchange of information, despite some of the public rhetoric and statements to the opposite of that.”


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