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Shoddy ‘Big Dig’ Paint to Cost $54M

Thursday, April 5, 2012

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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.


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.

‘Serious Problems’

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.
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.”

Energy-Saving Replacements

“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.”


Tagged categories: Coating failure; Corrosion; Peeling; Powder coatings; Quality control; Tunnel

Comment from Billy Russell, (4/6/2012, 9:10 AM)

I ask the question where was MassDOT inspectors at during the BIG DIG shoddy work on a 15 billion dollar project where was the 3rd party inspection firms under contract with MassDOT during all this shoddy work being done by contractors charging T&M for work. A 500 million dollar fund for a 15 BILLION dollar project with only 393 million left and they want approval for 54 million dollars to replace lights WOW I bet the federal government paid 80% of the 15 Billion Dollars to do this work and the tax payers of this Nation got SHODDY work for the Money Thank you very Much MassDOT hope everyone continues to enjoy thier retirement checks at our expense WOW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Comment from Billy Russell, (4/7/2012, 12:57 PM)

I am wondering since most of these projects are designated Union jobs, and behind the scenes lobbyist are pushing small non union contractors out of being able to Bid on these jobs and it seems as though our current President is promising these Unions even more access to these type of jobs, can the tax payers get stuck with recieving more results like this "Shoddy work on a 15 Billion dollar project " As I have experianced these Unions in Boston will not allow there employees on these jobs to be Drug Tested in the event of an accident, also I have seen on these projects in Boston that "journeyman" that work for Coatings contractors in Boston have been on the jobs for several years but have NEVER blasted or painted but yet they are paid Journey man wages just because these jobs are slotted for Union Jobs Does this practice not clearly show that this is costing more of our tax dollars to be spent an shoddy paint projects,my opinion is factual and based on my personal observation on projects for MASSDOT.

Comment from Mike McCloud, (4/9/2012, 8:18 AM)

I think it ended up closer to $22 billion and rising. Right on Billy!

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (4/9/2012, 8:57 AM)

Mike, original cost was supposed to be $2.8 Billion. End-of-project cost was ~$15 billion. By the time interest on the loans is paid, "final" cost is supposed to be ~$22 billion.

Comment from Noel Stampfli, (4/9/2012, 1:16 PM)

As disturbing as the cost escalation is how, in this specific instance, can what appears to be a dissimilar metals problem somehow be the fault of labor, union or not? Is labor really somehow to blame for selection of materials and methods that ultimately led to failure in service? Rather, it seems that something slipped through the cracks elsewhere.

Comment from Mark Haukom, (4/10/2012, 5:08 AM)

My take on this is that the paint the light manufacturer applied when the lights were produced is the problem, not something an onsite contractor did.

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (4/10/2012, 8:21 AM)

Noel - it depends on whether the installation damaged paint or not (exposing bare metal) and if that damage was repaired. How much of the "flaking" paint is due to poor manufacturing, and how much is installation damage? I have seen electricians do considerable damage to painted surfaces. I don't have personal experience in Boston, but when I did a trade show in union-heavy Chicago, I wasn't even allowed to plug in a lamp for our booth. That required an IBEW union man. Putting a cloth on the table? Different union man. Rolling the booth materials into the hall? Different union man. Setting up the booth? Different union man. It was ridiculous.

Comment from Billy Russell, (4/10/2012, 9:42 AM)

I was just refering to the Title of the article regarding the "shoddy" this is not the first issue regarding coatings failure with the big dig, yes this issue will be explained away to the point of getting lost, as did the plate that fell the point of the comments made are this, you would expect that for a MULTI BILLION DOLLAR project designated for union companies the lights would be the very Best for a project of this size installed by the very best "journeyman" these union companies demanding special treatment and access to jobs with federal money,there are numerous issues with this project, the list is long drainage, alot behind those walls we have no idea about yet! I was recently in Boston on a Union project arrived the Day after a lull operator Droped a load of Bridge Decking on a mans leg and Broke it in half I was amazed to find out neither man was made to take a drug test post accident, union rules. Now if these people expect our Tax Dollar funded projects to go to just union contractors should we not expect them to follow a higher standerd? and Yes Tom Schwerdt I saw the exact same thing Honestly a "journeyman" painter getting bridge rate that was with the company 3-5 years in the local and BRAGGING he has never had to paint or blast walking around pretending to be busy 8-10 of these guys on a project I stood there shaking my head at the TAX payers money being waisted on union designated projects.... still shaking my head!

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