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‘Major Deficiencies’ Found in Big Dig

Thursday, October 29, 2015

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Just 33 years after its conception and less than 10 years after completion, one of the most expensive and controversial highway projects in the U.S. has developed several ongoing problems.

Inspection reports indicate that Commonwealth of Massachusetts engineers have identified a number of “major deficiencies” in what is commonly called the Big Dig. Other problems, the inspectors noted, were more “minor” but still a cause for concern on the heavily travelled system of interstate tunnels that carry traffic around the Boston metro area.

According to a Monday (Oct. 26) article in the Boston Herald, MassDOT inspectors have discovered during the past year heavy corrosion on construction joints, missing steel cover plates and heavy corrosion and icicles hanging over interstate highways.

Inspection Reports

The newspaper reviewed the agency’s inspection reports on what is formally known as the Central Artery/Tunnel Project (CA/T) following a series of other recent problems on the system that was completed less than 10 years ago.

By MKdeJong / CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Inspection reports over the past year indicated that several sections of Boston's Big Dig have heavy corrosion, cracking and other issues that need repairs, according to the Boston Herald.

Among recent issues, highway officials revealed last week that hundreds of nuts on the tunnels’ light fixtures were “flawed” and likely the result of overtightening when they were installed, according to a Saturday (Oct. 24) article in the Boston Globe.

Earlier this month, the Boston Herald reported that plumbing bills for leaks in the tunnel system were running taxpayers as much as $7 million per year. Even with $127.5 million from the Central Artery/Tunnel Project Repair and Maintenance Trust Fund—which is managed by the Federal Highway Administration—officials have said the tunnels might always leak.

And the list, according to the Herald review, goes on.

‘Poor’ Ratings

Inspectors rated the tunnels on a scale from 0 to 9, where 9 is considered to be “excellent” and the quality drops as the number gets smaller. In a sampling of those inspection reports and rating scales, the daily newspaper found several “poor” rated notable trouble spots.

“Inspectors and engineers are charged with keeping meticulous records of any and all deficiencies noted and prioritized for repair based on the level of deficiency,” a MassDOT spokesman told the Herald.

“The process to ensure the public’s safety within the tunnel system is being carried out according to a stringent, robust maintenance and monitoring program, on a near-constant basis.”

Among those deficiencies, according to the Herald, were:

  • Inspectors gave a 4, or “poor,” rating to steel-plated construction joints on a section of the westbound I-90 Connector that carries traffic from the Ted Williams Tunnel. According to the Herald, a May 19 inspection report recorded “active leakage” in the tunnel. The inspectors also found peeling paint and several problems with bolts, including some that were missing, some that were loose and others that were heavily corroded.
  • During an Aug. 4 inspection, the report indicates that inspectors found “heavy rust” on the construction joints inside the westbound I-90 Connector. Those steel construction joints also were given a “poor” rating, and inspectors said they needed to be repaired “ASAP.” The tunnel inspectors also said the construction joints had severe collision damage, four missing steel cover plates and a bent steel frame.
  • Eastbound I-90 Connector was in bad shape as well, according to the Herald.  The connector was flagged for overhead water leaks during a March 6 inspection, the reports noted. Icicles—which had to be removed—were hanging over a car travel lane as a result of those leaks. Rated “poor,” they were marked as a major deficiency that needed to be fixed “ASAP.”
  • Inspectors found heavy and active leaks in a section of the westbound side of the I-90 Connector, to which inspectors also gave a “poor” rating. The Herald did not indicate on which date that inspection occurred.

Other Reports

Other reviews showed more favorable, but still problematic, inspections. On April 22 and then again on May 18, inspectors found and rated hairline cracks on ramps in the I-90 Westbound Connector. They rated those as 5, or “fair,” and considered the problem to be a minor deficiency.

On Jan. 6, the newspaper said, inspectors found “diagonal cracks at numerous locations” in the roof slab of a Northbound side ramp for the Tip O’Neill Tunnel—a 3.5-mile stretch that carries I-93 into the heart of Boston. It, too, was rated “fair” and considered to be a minor deficiency.

By MKdeJong / CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Recent problems include hundreds of flawed nuts on light fixtures and ongoing leaking, whith may be a chronic problem for the multi-billion-dollar infrastructure project.

The Herald also noted that most of the tunnel reports rated the Big Dig as a 5, 6, or 7, (“fair,” “satisfactory,” or “good,” according to the anchor points on the inspector’s scale). Less common were the “poor” ratings or those rated 8, or “good.”

MassDOT officials told the Boston Herald that heavy traffic volume is a major contributing factor to the heavy wear and tear and that the tunnels do not present a hazard to drivers.

Problematic From the Start

The Big Dig has always had its share of problems, according to multiple media reports. Conceived in 1982 with a projected completion date of 1998, the Dig was not completed until the end of 2007.

A Dec. 26, 2007, article in The Washington Post indicated that in addition to taking nearly a decade longer, the cost had soared from an original estimate of $2.6 billion to $14.8 billion. Six months later, The Boston Globe reported that interest will run Massachusetts taxpayers—who paid the lion’s share at 73 percent of the cost—another $7 billion by the time the debt is paid in 2038.

Other problems during construction, according to the media reports, included leaks, design flaws, allegations of poor execution by several involved, substandard materials, criminal arrest and one death.


Tagged categories: Corrosion; Department of Transportation (DOT); Federal Highway Administration (FHWA); Government; Government contracts; North America; Quality Control; Roads/Highways; Tunnel

Comment from Jim Brown, (10/29/2015, 9:39 AM)

Corrosion started on day one, when the metal was shaped in some yard to be added to the project in the distant future. No proper surface prep and no oversight. Some items will get over coated two or three times before completion of project, yet the original corrosion is still growing under the first applied primer. Project designers save a lot of money not having coating inspectors at conception. Most of the coating will last for thirty years. Only 1 percent of failure at the wrong joint location will cause failure of the structure. From 2.6 to 22 billion, that more that oversight would have cost.

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