Globe Editorial

State transportation officials must stress safety, transparency

July 14, 2011

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IT’S REASSURING, up to a point, to hear state Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan insist that the Big Dig tunnels are safe. In the aftermath of a Feb. 8 incident in which a light fixture fell onto the roadway, he maintains, multiple crews inspected the remaining fixtures and secured thousands of them with new fasteners. Still, the whole episode can only sow doubt about the accuracy and timeliness of the information that the transportation department puts out.

As Sunday’s Globe detailed, the incident became public more than a month after the fact - and only after Governor Patrick demanded it. There’s evidence that, in the days after the fixture fell, workers were slow to check other light fixtures that might be compromised, and failed to file written documentation required by department policy. Mullan added to the atmosphere of confusion and distrust, first by stating at a March press conference that his team had been taking the time to study the matter, and then that he hadn’t actually been briefed about it for some time.

After the Globe story ran, Mullan and Patrick both took issue with comments by Helmut Ernst, a high-level engineer for the department who maintained that engineers have been trained not to write safety problems down, because written records can be used in lawsuits. Any such mindset is totally unacceptable - particularly in light of Mullan’s stated commitment to transparency. But it’s fair to assume that Ernst, who was later placed on unpaid leave, was accurately describing how many in the department feel. As a consultant asked in an internal report, “How deep does the culture go where nobody says anything, even when they know they should?’’

Mullan says he’s trying to create a “decentralized, mission-driven, customer-service-driven, entrepreneurial organization,’’ and he stresses the difficulty of creating a new culture in a vast transportation department formed a year and a half ago out of several smaller agencies. Even so, it’s vital that people up and down the organizational chart understand that when an 8-foot-long, 110-pound piece of debris comes crashing onto one of the state’s busiest roadways, the information should immediately go straight to the top - and out to the public.