Monthly Archives: July 2006

Bishop versus Israel

I find it inexplicable that Episcopalian Bishop Thomas Shaw will once again protest outside the Israeli Consulate.

Never mind whether Israel’s response to the kidnapping of its soldiers could be considered disproportionate. That’s just part of a larger picture in which Palestinians elected a terrorist-led government dedicated to the destruction of Israel.

Now Hezbollah, based in Lebanon, has gotten into the act.

Unless Shaw believes that Israel ought to hand over all of its territory to Hamas, then it’s hard to understand precisely what it is he’s protesting. And, well, what about it, Bishop Shaw: Is that what you believe?

Digging into the Big Dig

Before I get to today’s coverage of the Big Dig tragedy, I want to call your attention to two stories published in the Boston Globe over the past few years — stories that, when combined with numerous other tales of malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance, go a long way toward explaining what happened Monday night.

The first, part of this series, was written by Raphael Lewis and Sean P. Murphy, and was published on Feb. 9, 2003. The focus is on $1.9 billion in extra expenses rung up by Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the private firm that’s managing the project. But what comes through with stunning clarity — especially now — is how sloppy and rushed much of the work was. A few highlights:

Bechtel failed to heed warnings of problems in the design drawings, even from its own engineers, records and interviews reveal. Those deficiencies were usually fixed only after contractors discovered them, when it was far more expensive to make changes. In almost all cases, Bechtel solved the design problems by recommending that the state approve hundreds of millions of dollars in payments to contractors for additional work.

Crews found that Bechtel’s complicated scheme to support the Artery while excavation work proceeded below was not viable, records show. The discovery set off an eight-month odyssey of reengineering, overtime, and extra shifts to correct the designs.

A little more than a year after Cashman took on the Artery contract, the company’s managers were fed up. In April 1999, Jamie Doyle, Cashman’s project director, fired off a letter to Bechtel engineers calling the contract “unconstructible.” He blamed the problem on unfinished designs.

“With even a summary understanding of the history of the issues dealt with, it becomes clearly evident that the plans, at bid time, were at best, no more than 65 percent plans,” Doyle wrote. “The prudent bidder has a legal as well as moral right to expect that he is bidding on 100 percent plans.”

Bechtel officials insist the designs in the Cashman contract were adequate, and that contractors routinely complain to make extra money.

To my mind, a follow-up story is even more troubling — not because of anything specifically relating to Monday’s tragedy, but because it shows how misconceived the Big Dig was right from the start.

Written by Lewis and published on Dec. 19, 2004, the report shows that, in the early 1990s, planners made a crucial decision based on cost and lack of space: to abandon the industry-standard tunnel-within-a-tunnel method of construction and instead to go with one massive tunnel. The subhead told the tale: “Novel technique may be behind troubles.” (The tunnel was already leaking.) Here is the nut of Lewis’s story:

[B]y 1991, as the project moved from concept to construction, company engineers took a closer look at the narrow path for the new tunnel and confronted a sobering reality. To accommodate the inner tunnel box, they either had to reduce the size of the highway to six lanes, which would provide no improvement in traffic flow, compared with the elevated road. Or they would have to seize land under some of the most costly property in the United States, such as International Place or the Federal Reserve Bank.

So Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff recommended a novel approach never before used for a highway tunnel in this country. Instead of building a tight box within the slurry walls, the contractors would use the rough, pock-faced slurry walls as the tunnel’s only walls. That would save about 6 feet on either side, allowing for eight lanes of roadway. It would also save millions of dollars in land-taking and leave surrounding properties untouched.

State and federal officials agreed, work began, and for the next decade and a half that design decision would receive almost no attention amid the frenzy of construction that soon enveloped Boston. Even less heralded was the arcane, unprecedented challenge of adequately waterproofing 3 miles of tunnels with no interior walls.

With Attorney General Tom Reilly, U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan, District Attorney Dan Conley and others beginning a criminal investigation, I suggest they take a close look at those two Globe reports. If a crime was committed, it was documented on the front page years ago.

Today’s coverage is generally excellent, but not nearly as important as the investigative work to come. The Globe recovered from a slow start to put together a comprehensive package beneath the six-column head “Mass. crisis of confidence.” The Herald also reports aggressively on the story, with a front-page splash that reads, “THEY SAID IT WAS SAFE.”

Two bits that I found especially chilling, the first from the Globe’s Scott Allen and Sean Murphy:

Civil engineers said the questions must go beyond the quality of workmanship to the tunnel’s design: Why were the concrete panels so heavy, weighing 2 1/2 to 3 tons apiece? Why were they there at all, since there was already a higher tunnel roof? And why did the failure of a single steel hanger send six to 10 of the slabs crashing down?…

“I can’t imagine anybody signing off on a design of suspending 3-ton concrete panels such that the failure of any one hanger would lead to 12 tons of concrete coming down on the highway,” said Steve Banzaert, who teaches a course in “spectacular failures in engineering” at MIT.

In the Herald, Casey Ross, Michele McPhee and Marie Szaniszlo report:

A 42-year-old laborer for the Big Dig said yesterday that after watching the “nonexistent safety testing” on the metal fasteners connecting slabs of concrete to tunnel ceilings, he warned his wife against traveling through the city’s tunnels.

The laborer, a Boston man who installed microsillica in the tunnels as the concrete slabs were installed, said that after the fasteners were welded overhead into the I-beams there were no tests done to determine if the steel was secure.

“There were guys on a scissor lift banging the fasteners with a hammer. If it didn’t pop out, they were on to the next one. I asked one of the guys, ‘Is that it?’ He goes, ‘Yup, that’s it.'”

The laborer’s version of safety checks was confirmed by an iron worker who also worked on the Big Dig. “They should have been using X-ray machines and pull tests. Most of the time, that was never done,” the iron worker said. Both workers requested anonymity because they continue to work for the contractors connected to the $14.6 billion project.

The Globe and the Herald both echo Gov. Mitt Romney in calling for the resignation of Massachusetts Turnpike chairman Matt Amorello. It’s hard to disagree. I thought Amorello comported himself well yesterday, and obviously the death of Milena Del Valle is not his fault. But the public has lost all confidence in the leadership of the Big Dig, so Amorello has to go, even if it’s just a symbolic gesture.

Still, I loved Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis’ take today:

With one sentence, during his bizarre encounter with the press yesterday, we were reminded just how shallow Gov. Mitt Romney truly is.

“Something happened today,” the Mittster said, his perfect hair strangely mussed, “that we believe substantially improves our legal ability to remove Chairman Amorello.”

Something? Something?

Is that all Milena Del Valle’s life amounted to in Mitt Romney’s eyes? “Something?”

The most embarrassing bit of coverage comes, not surprisingly, from Herald columnist Joe Fitzgerald, who warns that those pesky pols are going to take advantage of the tragedy by defeating the anti-gay-marriage amendment.

Finally, an example of the fog of journalism. In their piece on Angel Del Valle, the victim’s husband, the Globe’s Maria Cramer and John R. Ellement report:

Suddenly, in front of him, the ceiling began to give way. The noise was deafening.

He slammed on the brakes of his Buick sedan, but it was too late. Huge chunks of concrete and steel came crashing down on his car, nearly flattening it.

Here is the lead of Laura Crimaldi and Jessica Heslam’s story in the Herald:


With fresh wounds still on his forehead, the stunned husband of a Jamaica Plain mother crushed to death in Monday night’s Big Dig tunnel collapse said yesterday he swerved his car and sped up in vain to save his doting bride.

I have no idea who’s right. Maybe the accounts are not as inconsistent as they appear. And, of course, it’s a small detail. But it’s worth pointing out that the news media need to be especially careful about getting it right in the days and weeks ahead.

“Blood on their hands”

No doubt Matt Amorello has to go. But is that really the best Gov. Mitt Romney can come up with under the circumstances?

This Herald report suggests that at least someone knew the section that broke off and killed Milena Delvalle was unsafe — so much so that it had been scheduled for inspection later this year.

Jon Keller: “And now, they all have blood on their hands. It could have been your blood, or that of a loved one. If you’re not absolutely furious about what happened, you’re not breathing. Was this really a tragic ‘accident?’ I suggest another potential description: criminally-negligent manslaughter.”

A Big Dig death

A husband and wife are driving through the Big Dig tunnels around 11 p.m. It is, in every respect, a normal night. It’s not raining. The wind’s not howling. Yet a giant concrete slab falls out of the ceiling, killing the woman, and leaving the man to crawl out of the wreckage. (Globe coverage here; Herald coverage here; AP coverage here.)

Massachusetts Turnpike chief Matt Amorello on NECN: “We are taking every measure to make sure this doesn’t happen again.” Well, that’s a relief. He also says he hopes to reopen the tunnel by noon tomorrow. No thanks.

This is an awful tragedy, so I hesitate to suggest that anything good might come out of this. But now that someone has actually been killed, we may finally get the criminal investigations and private lawsuits we need to find out why our brand-new, $14.6 billion highway project is leaking, crumbling and endangering public safety.

How’s that trade working out? (XI)

The Red Sox played 19 innings yesterday and never used Jason Johnson. So this seems like an odd time to challenge me on the Bronson Arroyo trade. But Anonymous is up to the task, writing, “Dan’s gotten quiet about this, but in his last 6 starts Bronson Arroyo is 1-4 with a 4.91 ERA. Why can’t we get guys like this?”

Look, we know who Arroyo is. He’s the guy who went 14-10 with the Red Sox last year, with a 4.51 ERA. He’s streaky. It’s no surprise that he’s returned to earth. But he’s also a versatile pitcher with the right makeup to pitch in Boston. If he were with the Sox now, he’d be a decent fourth starter, the best fifth starter in the league or a good middle-innings guy — someone who could help us win this year.

Bruce Allen, sick of trade critics, recently suggested that Arroyo and Johnson are actually similar pitchers. Well, we’ve seen how that’s worked out, haven’t we?

I’m thrilled that Jon Lester, Manny Delcarmen and Craig Hansen are all contributing. But Arroyo-for-Wily Mo Peña was still one of those trades that wasn’t just dumb, but self-evidently dumb the moment it was made. Arroyo’s recent slump doesn’t change that.

The 25 percent solution

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby yesterday returned to one of his favorite issues — his contention that Article 48 of the state constitution requires the Legislature to vote up or down on proposed constitutional amendments submitted by initiative petition. Is Jacoby right? He may well be. But he’s not telling the whole story.

Currently an amendment is pending before the Legislature that would outlaw same-sex marriage. The amendment only requires the votes of 50 of the 200 House and Senate members, meeting in two consecutive sessions. If it clears that low hurdle, it would go on the 2008 ballot, where it would pass if it received a simple majority vote.

In order to get around the 25 percent requirement, Massachusetts Senate president Robert Travaglini, who will preside at the constitutional convention, is said to be considering a parliamentary maneuver — say, having one of his members file a motion to adjourn. If that motion were to pass by a majority, the convention would be over. Tom Birmingham did something very much like that when he was Senate president a few years ago.

Jacoby asserts:

Lawmakers are not given a choice in the matter. The Constitution requires them to vote. If it didn’t, initiatives opposed by the legislative leadership could be aborted by simply refusing to bring them up for a vote. Instead of operating as a check and balance on the Legislature, Article 48 would then be a toothless sham.

According to a LexisNexis search, this is at least the fourth time that Jacoby has railed against the Legislature’s disregard for Article 48. In 1997, he blasted the state’s Supreme Judicial Court for refusing to stand up to former Senate president Bill Bulger’s use of parliamentary maneuvers to kill a term-limits amendment. In 2002 and 2004, it was gay marriage.

But Article 48 cuts both ways. Bay Windows editor Susan Ryan-Vollmar sends along this recent article by Ethan Jacobs, in which Newton Mayor David Cohen, a former state representative, recalls precisely the same thing happening in 1990 to a proposed amendment that would have guaranteed abortion rights. Cohen told Jacobs, “That was used again by the anti-choice forces in blocking the amendment. There were repeated quorum calls, and since the pro-choice forces did not have a majority we could not maintain a quorum, and so that certainly is a legitimate tactic.”

A Boston Globe article published on Dec. 29, 1990, backs up Cohen. An excerpt:

Efforts to win legislative approval of two proposed constitutional amendments died yesterday when a majority of the state’s representatives and senators failed to show up for a constitutional convention called by Gov. Dukakis.

The constitutional convention, a joint session of the House and Senate that meets periodically through the year to debate proposed amendments to the state constitution, was adjourned for the year earlier this month.

But under pressure from the Massachusetts Teachers Association, backers of a proposal to add language to the constitution that would make equal access to quality educational opportunities in public schools a constitutional right, Dukakis called the convention back into session, as he is legally required to do.

That proposed amendment, however, has been overshadowed by another proposed amendment designed to guarantee access to abortion in Massachusetts. Both proposals reached the Legislature after tens of thousands of residents signed petitions favoring the measures.

Procedural rules dictated that the abortion amendment be debated before the education amendment and, because of organized opposition to the abortion amendment, lawmakers have failed to attend the convention sessions, leaving them without a quorum with which to conduct business.

Isn’t that interesting? I don’t believe Jeff Jacoby was writing in 1990. But if Article 48 requires a vote, then surely this is just as much of an outrage as what Travaglini is considering.

Finally, let’s take a look at the actual wording of Article 48. I’m not going to repeat the language Jacoby cites; besides, I tend to agree with him. At the very least, if the drafters of Article 48 realized the 25 percent provision could be defeated by such parliamentary shenanigans as motions for adjournment and quorum calls, I’m sure they would have written it differently. Rather, I’m intrigued by this:

No measure that relates to … the reversal of a judicial decision … shall be proposed by an initiative petition …

That seems to be clear enough. And what is the proposed amendment other than a transparent attempt to overturn the SJC’s 2003 Goodrich decision (PDF), which recognized the right of same-sex marriage under the state constitution? You may recall that two former state attorneys general, Jim Shannon and Scott Harshbarger, called on Attorney General Tom Reilly to refuse to allow the amendment to go forward. But Reilly, who must depend on the votes of conservative Democrats and independents in his gubernatorial campaign, ruled otherwise.

Amending a constitution to take away people’s rights is a nasty business. That’s why the amendment process is so difficult at the federal level, requiring two-thirds of both branches of Congress and three-quarters of the state legislatures.

Amending the Massachusetts constitution may, as Ryan-Vollmar suggests, be harder than it is in some other states. But two 25 percent votes of the Legislature followed by a simple majority of the electorate is still pretty easy. Under those circumstances, I think Travaglini is justified in doing whatever he can to keep the tyranny of the majority at bay.

Finally: Two of the Democratic candidates for governor, Deval Patrick and Chris Gabrieli, say they favor marriage rights for lesbians and gay men. This week’s Boston Phoenix asks why they’re showing so little backbone on the constitutional amendment.

Update: There’s a breaking story on Boston.com right now that the SJC has ruled the anti-gay-marriage amendment can be put on the ballot if it passes the legislative hurdle. That strikes me as an odd interpretation of Article 48. Maybe Jacoby and I should get together and rewrite it.

Chutzpah defined

Alison Lobron writes in today’s Boston Globe:

In Davis Square, Diesel Cafe charges for wireless — about $14 a month — but co-owner Jen Park said she also confronts customers who are not buying food. Perhaps the worst offenders are the people who buy coffee at the Starbucks across Elm Street, then head for the comfortable red booths at Diesel with their Starbucks cup in hand, she said.

You can’t make this stuff up.

The forgotten readers

While I was at Christopher Lydon’s session at UMass, my sometime editor Tom Stites was down the hall, delivering this speech. Tom sent me the Word file, and I was going to ask him whether I could post it — but then Dan Gillmor beat me to it. (And Adam and John beat me in linking to it.)

Stites’ speech is about a topic that’s important not just for journalism, but for democracy: the newspaper industry’s advertiser-driven abandonment of all but the most affluent readers. Tom’s attitude toward his former newspaper colleagues is more sorrow than anger — after all, he observes, how can it be otherwise when Wal-Mart, where poor people actually shop, doesn’t buy newspaper ads, whereas businesses that cater to upscale readers do?

This is a long piece, and I can’t adequately summarize it. So do yourself a favor and read the whole thing.

Toward a New England Common

What does Christopher Lydon want? After sitting in on a session he led last Friday at UMass Amherst, my impression was that he really doesn’t know — but that he’s hoping it will emerge if enough smart people put their minds to it.

The post-“Connection” Lydon is a devotee of blogging, and his radio show, “Open Source,” attempts to join blogging and radio. (It’s an uneasy combination, although the radio part of it is often terrific.) At his UMass session, part of the Media Giraffe conference, several dozen of us talked about an idea that he calls “The New England Common.”

What is it? Maybe a network of blogs, like Universal Hub — although, when I asked him about that specifically, he demurred. Maybe something a little more deliberate than that, like the Huffington Post. Maybe — and this is what really seemed to animate him — an online version of the Boston Globe as Lydon would envision it. (Lydon recently caused a stir with this withering essay on the Globe, written for CommonWealth Magazine.)

Blue Mass Group and Marry in Massachusetts have both done a good (if overly skeptical) job of covering the basics of what we talked about. I think the difference between their take and mine is that I believe Lydon genuinely wants to see what will bubble up. Lydon’s emphasis on elite journalists like Richard Dyer and David Warsh (who was there) and elite institutions like Harvard (and Harvard and Harvard) was somewhat amusing given the populist leanings of those gathered. But Lydon seems to be trying to overcome his elitism rather than wallowing in it.

Lydon’s basic question was this: Given the number of bloggers and brains we have in New England, why haven’t those commodities come together as we’ve seen elsewhere, such as New York, Washington and the West Coast?

I don’t know the answer to that, but a few cultural observations may suggest that New England is different. You could go back at least to the 1970s, when the economic landscape was dominated by minicomputer companies such as Digital and Wang. The founders of those companies, Kenneth Olsen and An Wang, failed to adapt, and they fell to a rising information revolution led first by personal computers and, later, the Internet.

For that matter, why has Salon been thriving in San Francisco since 1995 while Boston, a similar city in many respects, has never had anything remotely like it? Salon strikes me as being very similar to what Lydon may have in mind.

Part of why we’re different, I think, may be rooted in a cultural desire for control and for the old way of doing things. Even when something genuinely new comes along, it’s quickly incorporated as the new old, and change is resisted for fear of losing control.

Which might have something to do with the local blogs. I suspect we all like having our independence too much to allow ourselves to be subsumed into a New England Common. I certainly wouldn’t mind if Media Nation were part of a larger network — as it is to some extent, through its listing on Romenesko and mentions on Universal Hub. But I have little interest in its becoming, say, an online column within New England Common, if that’s ultimately the direction in which Lydon wants to move.

For all his enthusiasm, I also wonder whether Lydon understands the limitation of blogs. He made it pretty clear that he wants expertise, research and reporting — all the things for which we still need the mainstream media. Blogging doesn’t pay, and until it does, it’s going to remain something we do when we ought to be doing something else.

Obviously, this is a discussion to be continued. Lydon is an interesting guy, and I want to see where he might go with this.