Friday, July 28, 2006

Matt Amorello and the Fall River-Boston Connection

With a sickening crack, tons of concrete plummet from the tunnel ceiling above to the highway below. The sound of the crashing concrete ceiling tiles is joined by the sound of crumpled sheet metal and smashed glass and the squeal of tires desperately trying to stop.

After those initial moments of tragedy when the dust of shattered concrete finally settled, with the tunnel closed and a major highway impacted, Matt Amarello stands in the middle of it all. He is the man who has to find the answers to explain what just happened. Little did anyone realize, 7 years later he'd be doing it again.

It was March 3, 1999 when 2 ceiling tiles weighing about 2 tons each fell from the ceiling of the Government Center tunnel onto the highway below. The chaos that followed resulted a multi-car accident and several injuries but thankfully no one is killed.

It turns out that in the 20+ years since it was built no one had inspected the tiles and the metal clips that held the tiles in place had failed. Matt Amorello, the state Highway commissioner, said "We can't change what happened, but we can work to make it better". Meanwhile, as the tiles under Fall River's Government Center were coming down, the tiles in the tunnels of Boston's "Big Dig" were just going up.

Conceived in the 1970's as a way to replace and reroute 3.5 miles of Boston's congested Central Artery expressway, the Central Artery/Tunnel Project, nicknamed the "Big Dig", was already over budged, behind schedule and severely mismanaged by the time Amorello was appointed Turnpike Authority Chairman in February of 2002.

Amorello's appointment, some claim, was nothing more than a political maneuver by Governor Jane Swift to thwart the efforts of those who were critical of the handling of Big Dig project.
Amorello became the 4th chairman in just 2 years, responsible for overseeing a project that was already facing quality concerns due to leaks in the Fort Point Connector.

In 2004 a major leak in the I-93 North Tunnel forced it to be closed for repairs. Project officials claimed that some leaks were to be expected in a complex tunnel project like the Big Dig and Matt Amorello assured: "There is no way that I or the Turnpike Authority or the engineers who work on the project would ever allow citizens to use an unsafe highway network."

Those sentiments would come back to haunt Matt Amorello on July 10, 2006 when massive ceiling tiles in a connector tunnel came crashing down on the car occupied by Angel Delvalle and his wife Melina as they were on their way to Logan Airport. Mr. Delvalle was rushed to the hospital with minor injuries but his wife was pronounced dead at the scene.

In the days and weeks that followed, with Matt Amorello trying to assure the public the tunnels were safe and everything was being done to make sure such an accident would never happen again, investigators focused on the bolt/epoxy system that held ceiling structure in place. It quickly came to light that there has been concerns as early as 1998 about tunnel ceilings by both the Massachusetts Inspector General and a safety officer for Modern Continental Construction.

Although there are many similarities, circumstances that led to the collapse of the ceiling tiles in the Government Center tunnel in March of 1999 are ultimately much different than the circumstances that led to collapse of ceiling tiles in the I-90 connector. What happened in Fall River happened because lack of inspection for over 2 decades allowed for deterioration to compromise the metal that held the tiles in place, in Boston the ceiling just hadn't been up long enough for that to be a concern.

Still, one has to wonder why the collapse of the tunnel ceiling tiles in Fall River didn't focus more attention to the concerns expressed over the Big Dig ceiling. Would it not make sense that after being appointed chairman of the MTA that Matt Amorello would have educated himself on all the troubles and concerns raised about the project? If so, after going through the incident in Fall River wouldn't alarm bells go off if at the mere mention of ceiling tiles?

I guess not.

It's a shame that what happened in Fall River, though unrelated, didn't spur more caution and oversight in the installation of the Big Dig ceiling. It's a shame that what happened in Fall River didn't prevent what happened in Boston. Now that work if finally underway to repair the Government Center tunnel, let's hope what happened in Boston prevents it from ever happening again.

*Matthew J. Amorello resigned his position as the Chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority after much political pressure from Governor Mitt Romney

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Gates of Ponta Delgada......Boulevard

For over a year I've watched as a vacant lot, a filled in former crab pond, became a landmark.

When I first learned that the city of Ponta Delgada, located in Azores, had gifted to Fall River these beautiful gates, replicas of the gates that welcomes visitors to that city, I didn't understand why we would place them on this vacant lot. It seemed that that certainly there must be a place where these gates would be better appreciated, but then I learned that the site is the intended home of a Fall River train station. If and when the state ever delivers on its promise of rail service to Fall River, these gates will welcome visitors here.

Now that the gates are completed and the landscaping completed and the dedication has taken place, I have to say they really are quite breathtaking. When rail service finally makes its way down here to Fall River and people step of that platform it will be a fine welcome indeed.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

No Walk in the Park

Kennedy Park, for those not familiar, sits in the south end of the city. It is one of Fall River's three Olmsted parks. It slopes down toward, and eventually meets the Taunton River to the west, it is topped by St. Anne's Church to the east and is bordered by houses and tenements on both sides. Although baseball diamonds fill its upper section and tennis courts and an inground pool intrude at its lower section, taking away some of its grandness and beauty the park is still a majestic thing. It is an oasis, an island of green open space in an ocean of densely populated neighborhoods. Children sleigh and skate in winter, fly kites in the summer, and people stroll year round.

A few weeks ago a story in the Herald News announced that the annual 4th of July fireworks at Kennedy Park, a long standing tradition, would instead be held at Heritage Park.

The story, which I cannot find online to link to, went on to explain that the Veterans Council which is one of the sponsors of the event no longer had the manpower to do it and had approached the folks over at Heritage State Park to take it over.

It's an awful thing to see the end of a much loved tradition.

The 4th of July at Kennedy Park could be a Norman Rockwell painting. Who knows how many generations of Fall Riverites have packed up their loved ones and sitting out on blankets and lawn chairs have watched exploding ribbons of color fill the night sky?

As night falls people from all of the city make their way to Kennedy Park. They leave their cars on nearby side streets and a flood of people, young and old, make their way to the park. As they walk down sidewalks with the heat and humidity of the day at last giving in to night air, they pass by people assembled on porches, in backyards and on stoops. The smells of cookouts and the sound of easy conversation linger in the air as those who live near the park host the perfect Independence Day celebration to be capped off with a near perfect view of the fireworks display.

The park begins to fill, the best spots go first and those who come late will have to contend with a view obstructed by trees. People perch on tiptoes to try to spy among the sea of faces, a friend or relative that they planned to meet up with. Hawkers abound trying to sell glow sticks and ice cream and refreshment carts do brisk business.

Then they start, a whoosh followed by streaks of color and followed by the awaited boom. People oohh and ahhh, some children clap and point while the smaller ones start to cry and cling tight to mom and dad.

The night sky fills with color and the sound of explosions seems non-stop as the fireworks people lead us through several false finales before climaxing with the GRAND FINALE.

The last explosion reverberates off the nearby houses and whoops and cheers fill the park and people head off toward home.

It has been a good night.

But now this simple tradition is being replaced by a 4 day event at Heritage State Park, filled with music, car shows, a traveling amusement park, all capped off with a fireworks display that we be launched from a barge anchored in the taunton river.

Amazingly there has been little public protest over the change in venue, however with such a late announcement any protest would be of no use. Also there is very little promotion going on and I find that a lot of people I talk to just aren't aware of the change!

It seems to me that this is less about the Veterans ability to sponsor this even and more about turning a simple fireworks show into a money making event, and although this is being billed a free event I wouldn't be surprised if in the near future there was a charge for admission.

One can only imagine that this will in many ways be similar to Fall River Celebrates America. And the fact that Fall River Celebrates will take place at the same park just a few weeks later. is reason enough to keep with simpler tradition at Kennedy Park.