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

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