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What went wrong at the Big Dig

ONE NEED ONLY consider the Grand Canyon to be reminded of the magnitude of the corrosive effect of water over sand and stone -- and to understand the gravity of the problem we face with over 400 leaks breaching the tunnel walls of the Big Dig.

How could we spend $14.25 billion -- and counting -- and end up with a tunnel gushing millions of gallons of water?

At one level, the answer seems simple: soil and clay deposits in concrete poured to create the (now leaking) tunnel walls. Then add in shoddy work and an unimaginable lack of oversight and quality control by the construction manager, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff. But from a broader governmental and management perspective, the answer is even more troublesome.

On Nov. 16, 2001, then Acting Governor Jane Swift fired then Turnpike Vice Chairman Christy Mihos and Director Jordan Levy. We are now paying for those firings and may for some time.

As the direct result of the firings and her appointment of Matt Amorello as Turnpike chairman, Swift stopped the ongoing management restructuring of the Big Dig, including the cornerstone of the reform, to hire an owner's engineer to oversee the otherwise unsupervised Bechtel/Parsons.

Mihos's restructuring initiative could have mitigated or prevented the leaks, as well as other flaws, during construction, when errors could have been avoided or repaired. The result is tragic and devastating.

The leading candidate at the time to become the owner's engineer supervising Bechtel/Parsons was legendary "Chunnel" construction manager Jack Lemley. In the mid-1990s, Lemley had written a report critical of Big Dig construction management. Ironically, Lemley is now leading the investigation of the leaks he might have prevented.

But as the new Turnpike chairman, Amorello refused to implement the board's resolution to hire an owner's engineer. Indeed, Bechtel/Parsons remains unsupervised today.

Instead, Amorello forced out the entire legal staff of the Office of the General Counsel. The staff had played an important role in investigating Bechtel/Parsons and in restructuring management of the firm, including taking over its authority to make decisions to pay contractor's claims for extra work. The general counsel had also interviewed the candidates for owner's engineer as well as other construction management firms capable of replacing the Bechtel hierarchy.

A month before Swift's firings, her office had asked about purported plans by the Turnpike Board to terminate Bechtel/Parsons for mismanagement. Just after 7 a.m. on Oct. 9, Turnpike CEO Richard Capka called me at home. Capka said he had just spoken to Steve Crosby, Swift's secretary of administration and finance, who had told him that Bechtel had contacted Swift at her home in North Adams and voiced concerns that the Turnpike Board would terminate the company at the board's meeting two days later. As general counsel, I informed Capka that I had no knowledge of such a plan.

One day later, Swift again intervened on behalf of Bechtel/Parsons and undermined the Turnpike Authority's ongoing negotiations with the company. The negotiations included issues of restructuring of Big Dig management, and a demand for reparations from Bechtel/Parsons in the amount of $250 million.

Prior to the morning session of the negotiations, a Turnpike employee received a phone call from a friend who was an aide to the acting governor. The aide stated that the Bechtel/Parsons team participating in the negotiations had a meeting scheduled in Swift's office prior to the afternoon negotiating session.

In the morning meeting, Bechtel made an offer of payment to the Turnpike of $50 million, with contingencies. That afternoon, within minutes of returning from the meeting in Swift's office, Bechtel/Parsons walked away from the negotiations.

One month later, Swift announced the firings and left the Commonwealth with the problems that have now come to light. She cited as her reasons "micromanagement" and "financial irresponsibility" for delaying toll increases for six months.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court saw through Swift's pretense and declared her terminations unlawful. The court reinstated the board members. It was too late, however, to save the reforms that could have avoided the disaster we now face. In the meantime, the Legislature expanded the Turnpike Board by two members to be able to vote out the management reform at the Big Dig.

It did not have to happen.

Peter Pendergast was the general counsel of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority from August 2000 to July 2002. 

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