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.