Boston's Big Dig: The Deadly Engineering Gift That Keeps On GivingS

The Big Dig, a Boston engineering boondoggle that's national news mostly because you helped us pay for it, is basically a death trap. It's killed people already, and some precariously perched lights were preparing to off a few more.

Lucky for us (Boston residents, Logan airport traffic and daily visitors), an investigative report by the Boston Globe has sped up the maintenance of this poorly constructed tunnel system, which was apparently on the verge of sending a few more immense 110-lb. lighting fixtures into the roadway of the Ted Williams tunnel seemingly any day now.

And yes, I said "a few more." One already fell last winter, although no one was hurt, which is great because the tunnel and its surrounding guard rails are already responsible for at least two deaths in the last few years:

Boston's Big Dig: The Deadly Engineering Gift That Keeps On GivingS

The Big Dig already had a tragic experience with dangerous falling objects. A tunnel ceiling panel had collapsed in 2006, killing a woman a few hundred yards from where the nine corroded fixtures were discovered on Feb. 16. State engineers had no way of knowing how many more of the 25,000 lights in the Big Dig tunnels had become unstable - and plenty of reason to fear that corrosion was widespread after years of saltwater leaking into the tunnels.

What's even worse than a massive ceiling light falling on your car while you're driving at speed is the fact that, had the Globe reporters not started snooping around, we wouldn't have known engineers and even members of the local government were covering things up, not reporting their findings or ineptly dragging their feet:

Internal e-mails and Transportation Department reports obtained by the Globe show that last winter's light fixture collapse presented a more hazardous situation than Secretary Jeffrey B. Mullan disclosed to the public, and one that could add $200 million to the already-gargantuan price of the Big Dig.

State records also show that his agency's attempt to solve the problem was both more secretive and sluggish than he admitted. Engineers, led by Mullan's close associate Helmut Ernst, didn't even send the fallen fixture to a lab for analysis until March 16, instead leaving the crucial piece of evidence in a South Boston maintenance facility along with mounds of road debris.

Mullan's changed his story already and sacked some patsy named Frank Tramontozzi, who was an engineer on duty when Mullan's close associate Helmut Ernst was on family leave. Ernst, for his part, allowed the fallen light fixture to languish in a South Boston debris heap until March 16, instead of sending it to a lab for corrosive analysis immediately after the incident last winter.

Oh, and the bill's going to be about $200 million. We still don't know why the lights corroded prematurely. It could be road salt or it could be the sea water that constantly seeps into the tunnel system and already costs the city $12 million to pump out every year.

Thank you, America, for helping us build the crown jewel of our city's transportation system. It was a federally-funded project. [The Boston Globe]

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