By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

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More Big Dig problems you don’t have to worry about

State officials want you to know that there is absolutely no reason for you to worry about the massive sinkhole that’s been discovered beneath a portion of the Big Dig. As a public service, Media Nation wants to remind you of other Big Dig problems — just teeny little glitches when you think about it — that you also don’t have to worry about:

  • Corroded 110-pound light fixtures that could fall on your car while you’re driving through, but that have been supposedly fixed. What? Sounds dangerous? Why, state transportation secretary Jeffrey Mullan didn’t even think it was necessary to tell Gov. Deval Patrick. Mullan is now leaving state government because he didn’t get a raise.
  • Leaks so extensive that they are beginning to damage the steel girders that support the Tip O’Neill Tunnel. Oops — sorry to sound like an alarmist. Our leaders want you to know that the leaks are the equivalent of the water that comes of “three garden hoses.” How can something you use to water your lawn possibly be dangerous?
  • Crashing three-ton ceiling panels of the sort that killed Milena Del Valle in 2006 as she and her husband were driving to Logan Airport. Again, no problems — they’re using better glue now or something.
If there are any other Big Dig problems that you absolutely, positively don’t have to worry about, please add them in the comments. Those are just the ones I could come up with off the top of my head.

For Amorello, a sad and ugly ending

Both the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald give the front-page treatment today to former Big Dig chief Matt Amorello. Each paper also features those horrendous mug shots of Amorello, barely conscious, being held by a police officer so that his picture could be taken.

There’s a case to be made that the photos shouldn’t have been published, but I’m not going to make it here. I suspect that any impulse to hold back disappeared when Amorello himself disappeared. He later turned up at UMass Medical Center.

The two dailies offer some details (here and here) on Amorello’s slide following his forced resignation in 2006, after a woman was killed when a concrete slab fell from a Big Dig tunnel onto her car. You will find nothing surprising in either story.

The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, whose coverage area includes Haverhill, where Amorello was arrested, sticks to what’s in the police report, as well as the observations of a few witnesses. “I’m just glad nobody got hurt,” Leonor Santos tells the paper. “We’re angry about him being drunk and driving. But thank God he’s OK. I’d rather he hit my car than the pole.”

Amorello easily could have killed someone. WBZ television and radio analyst Jon Keller writes that Amorello deserves compassion, but not forgiveness. I agree.

A project where nothing was done right

It leaks. A woman was killed when a concrete ceiling tile fell off and crushed her. It virtually bankrupted the state.

And now we learn, from Boston Globe reporter Matt Carroll, that the folks who gave us the Big Dig even managed to botch the little things in deadly ways: a pedestrian railing with unnecessarily sharp edges was installed too low, resulting in deaths and dismemberment.

Patrick’s snowstorm appointment

Gov. Deval Patrick must be extremely proud of appointing Joseph Aloisi as secretary of transportation. Otherwise, why would he have announced it in the midst of a snowstorm on the Friday before Christmas?

Patrick manages to work in the words “reforming” and “reform” in discussing Aloisi, which is exactly the first thought that springs to my mind upon learning that Aloisi collected $3 million in legal fees from the Big Dig.

At Blue Mass Group, David Kravitz writes:

[W]hen it’s the bottom of the ninth, two outs, two on, and the home team down by two (which strikes me as a fair description of where we are right now), who do you want at bat? Do you want a .205 hitter with a record of not many extra-base hits and a lot of strikeouts? ‘Cause that’s how Aloisi strikes me, based on his history with Kerasiotes, Amorello, and all the rest of it.

I think Kravitz is being kind, but we’ll see. What worries me is that House Speaker Sal DiMasi may be too weakened by the ongoing corruption investgation to act as a counterbalance.

DiMasi saved Patrick (and us) from casinos, and he’s intent on saving us from massive toll hikes as well. But he’s not going to be able to do that if he’s forced to spend most of his time huddled with lawyers.

Talking swaptions on NECN

And no, I don’t know what they are. But here’s last night’s “NewsNight” segment from NECN in which former Boston Globe reporter-turned-communications consultant Tom Palmer, host Jim Braude and I discuss tolls, gas hikes and investigations.

Media Nation on NECN tonight

I’ll be on NECN‘s “NewsNight” today at 8 p.m. to discuss the Big Dig and the toll-hike/gas-tax conundrum.

Let the Pike go bankrupt

This story in today’s Boston Globe, reporting that the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority will face bone-crushing additional debt payments if the Legislature tries to repeal the absurd toll increases the authority’s board recently approved, has me wondering why we shouldn’t just let the Pike go into bankruptcy.

Regardless of why and how all this happened, the idea that the Legislature can’t replace something stupid (toll hikes) with something smart (a higher gas tax) because of deals that the Pike negotiated in the credit market smacks of extortion. I hope legislators will seriously consider doing what they think is right for the public, and let the Pike stew in its own mess.

Weirdly enough, some of this has to do with the bankrupt financial firm with which the Pike did much of its business, Lehman Brothers.

And by the way, I think my credentials as a good-government liberal are pretty much indisputable. If I’m taking a Howie Carr-like position on all this, then I think it’s likely these hacks have lost virtually all the support they ever had.

The Outraged Liberal has some additional thoughts.

Let’s hear it for DiMasi (again)

I shouldn’t be blogging, because I’ve got an interview to prepare for. But I didn’t want the shift away from a toll hike and toward an increase in the gasoline tax to get by me without saying anything.

This could turn out to have been choreographed. But assuming everything is as it appears on the surface, it’s hard not to notice that, for the second time, House Speaker Sal DiMasi — invariably described as “embattled” these days — has stood up on the right side of a major public policy issue, and Gov. Deval Patrick hasn’t.

Without DiMasi, we might very well be sliding toward Patrick’s disastrous proposal to build three gambling casinos. And Patrick is reportedly still reluctant to support “broad-based tax increases,” as his spokesman, Kyle Sullivan, puts it.

If DiMasi’s enemies succeed in driving him from office, where is that going to leave us?

For whom the toll tolls

What, are they insane?

The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority yesterday didn’t just kill the goose that lays the golden eggs — that would be us. In raising tolls through the roof, as Noah Bierman reports in the Boston Globe, the authority buried the goose’s carcass somewhere beneath a cash-stuffed toll booth, never to be seen again. “I’m already mapping out, in my mind, alternative routes,” writes Jay Fitzgerald at Hub Blog.

Let me say right up front that the proposed toll increases would have little effect on me. I come in from the North Shore, and maybe a couple of times a year I’ll swing over to the Ted Williams Tunnel because something has gone wrong on Route 1. So I’m not looking at a $7 daily toll. But this is just nuts.

Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr is his usual irresponsible self today, writing a damn-them-all screed that doesn’t leave room for any reasonable approach to what has become a huge problem. But on his WRKO Radio (AM 680) program yesterday, he was making more sense, admitting that the state somehow has to pay off the Big Dig fiasco — and that it would be much fairer to spread the pain with an increased gas tax than with toll hikes that, in the case of MetroWest, are paid by those who don’t even use the Big Dig.

Then again, both he and Herald reporter Hillary Chabot raise the specter that we’ll get a gas-tax hike on top of the toll hike. They could be right, even though the Globe’s Bierman reports that Gov. Deval Patrick remains opposed to a gas tax.

On the other hand, the Outraged Liberal thinks yesterday’s announcement is a ruse that will lead not to a toll increase but to a boost in the gas tax. He writes:

But there is a method to this planned madness.

The Globe notes the increases will go into place after another hearing by the Turnpike Authority in February or March. I personally would book Fenway Park as a location that could handle the crowd of angry people.

Presumably, that would be enough time for Deval Patrick and legislators to get off their, um, sidelines, and approve a comprehensive plan to tackle the transportation nightmare (hey, throw in the disaster known as the MBTA while you are at it.)

I hope he’s right. As a Globe editorial noted earlier this week, a 4-cent increase in the state gas tax would bring in $100 million a year — exactly the amount to be raised by the toll hike.

Photo taken inside Ted Williams Tunnel (cc) by Mark Danielson and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Original sin and the Big Dig

The importance of Sean Murphy’s story in yesterday’s Globe is that it reinforces a gnawing fear many of us experience every time we drive through the O’Neill Tunnel — that today may be the day all hell breaks loose, and that we’ll be buried alive under tons of water-logged dirt.

Am I being overly dramatic? Perhaps. Officials whom Murphy interviewed seek to assure us that the ongoing mini-flood inside the tunnel is no threat to safety. But when we learn that “state officials acknowledged there is already surface rusting on 10 percent of the massive steel girders in the ceiling,” it’s hard to believe those reassurances.

The picture I take away from this is that of government officials knowing they have a potential catastrophe on their hands and having absolutely no idea of what to do about it. Even if you could close it and start over — and think about the incredible disruption to the region’s economy — where would you ever find the money?

The original sin was revealed in this 2004 story, by then-Globe reporter Raphael Lewis with an assist from Murphy. A watertight tunnel required a proven, two-layer approach — a tube within a tube, essentially. But once the tunnel designers realized they didn’t have room to do it right, they decided to do it wrong, and to brag about how smart and innovative they were. Thus we have a single tube, leaking from the sides and the top.

Moving forward, the incentives are all wrong. Especially during these early years of the Big Dig, the odds of catastrophic failure are no doubt pretty long. Officialdom has every reason to kick the can down the road, reasonably secure in the knowledge that we can get by for now. If Gov. Deval Patrick were to take drastic, disruptive action without a compelling reason, he’d be excoriated for creating a one-man recession.

Yet who knows what the truth is? It’s likely that even those studying the tunnel most closely don’t know whether it will last 25 years, the timeline in Murphy’s story, or 25 months. (And how do you like that 25-year figure? If it had opened in 1982, which doesn’t seem that long ago to me, we’d be looking at replacing it now.)

Even though the problem was unrelated to the leaks, we’ve all known since Melina Del Valle was crushed to death that something had gone horribly wrong with the Big Dig. In the absence of any good ideas for fixing it, we’ll all be playing Massachusetts Roulette every time we drive through it.

There may come a time, if it hasn’t already arrived, that the Big Dig will be viewed as the most blatant example of government incompetence in our history. And before you start sharpening your ideological swords, it’s unclear whether the problem was too much government or not enough. Certainly there should have been far more oversight of Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the private partnership given carte blanche to design and build the project.

What a disaster.

Photo (cc) by Scutter. Some rights reserved.

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