It will take about two years and $54 million to properly replace more than 25,000 Boston “Big Dig” tunnel light fixtures that are corroding due to paint failure.
Worse, the apparent culprit in the case is now out of business.
Those are the hard facts facing the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Board of Directors, which was urged Wednesday to green-light the replacement project—even at its own expense.
|A screen grab from NuArt Lighting’s former website boasts of lighting figures “designed for harsh environments and demanding service.” The company is out of business.|
Under the plan, the state would replace tens of thousands of corroding fluorescent fixtures like the eight-foot-long, 110-pound unit that came loose from the ceiling and crashed into the Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. Tunnel in February 2011.
No one was injured in the Sunday morning mishap.
A state investigation later blamed the accident on “serious problems” with the fixtures’ coating.
In a letter last March to NuArt Lighting of Fullerton, CA, which supplied the fixtures, District 6 Highway Director Helmut R. Ernst, P.E., said the inspection had revealed that paint was flaking off many of the fixtures’ wireways, exposing bare aluminum to the elements and “causing excessive corrosion and premature failure of the wireways.”
Fixture mounting clips were also corroding, added Ernst, the Big Dig’s chief engineer.
“In many instances, it is obvious this corrosion is due to paint failure under the clip, allowing a galvanic reaction to occur between the stainless steel clip and the aluminum wireway,” he wrote.
“Numerous failures appear to be associated with the stainless steel light fixture mounting clip cutting through the paint and coming in contact with the aluminum wireway.”
An interactive graphic by the Boston Globe details the lights’ corrosion problem.
‘We Could Have More Incidents’
Since the accident, engineers have temporarily reinforced the fixtures in the 7.5 mile tunnel system with plastic ties.
Although the state’s top transportation official initially called the corrosion problem “relatively isolated,” a year-long study has persuaded transportation officials that the most expensive option—full-scale replacement—is also the only permanent solution, state Highway Administrator Frank DePaola told the MassDOT Board this week.
|Paint peeled from the fixture that came loose from the ceiling tunnel. The fixtures are made of powder-coated aluminum.|
“The preferred alternative is a complete replacement,’’ DePaola told the board. “The existing fixtures continue to corrode. We could have more incidents. For that reason, I think it is best for all of us that we remove the fixtures.’’
DePaola added, “The lights are safe. But if we don’t do something, this will be a continuing maintenance issue we have to deal with, which means road closures.”
“This will be the biggest lighting project we’ve done in many years,” DePaola told the board.
The good news, DePaola said: The new fixtures would feature energy-saving LED lights, which last up to 15 years (compared to two for fluorescent) and are expected to save $2.5 million annually on the tunnels’ electrical bill.
They also will be sealed plastic, which should slow the corrosion that DePaola said was progressing “faster than we would have liked.”
The work would be done mostly overnight, from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., and last about two years.
Footing the Bill
NuArt was bought out after the accident and is now out of business, dimming MassDOT’s chances of compensation for the bad fixtures, officials said.
Still, the board could tap a maintenance fund set up in 2008 with the proceeds of a nearly $500 million settlement with Big Dig contractors Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff and others for shoddy work on the $15 billion project. The project has been plagued since completion by problems, including widespread water leaks and a fatal ceiling collapse.
The federal government must approve disbursements from the fund, which now has about $393 million.
Board approval seemed likely, MassDOT spokeswoman Sara Lavoie told the Boston Herald.
“There was a lot of things they didn’t like at the board meeting, and this they did,” she said. “They liked the energy savings.”
She added: “We needed a permanent solution, and we think this $54 million proposal is the solution.”