Legislators to press transportation chief

Response at issue in tunnel dangers

By Sean P. Murphy
Globe Staff / July 11, 2011

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State legislative leaders yesterday demanded that the secretary of transportation answer tough questions about his agency’s reluctance to write down information that could have political or professional consequences, including engineers’ failure to document the fall of a 110-pound light fixture in one of the Big Dig tunnels in February.

Legislators promised to grill Secretary Jeffrey B. Mullan following disclosure in yesterday’s Globe that the engineer in charge of the 7.5-mile maze of Big Dig tunnels has avoided written reports since a 2006 ceiling collapse in one tunnel killed a woman, prompting massive lawsuits. The Globe obtained an internal consultant’s report worrying about a culture in the Transportation Department “where nobody says anything, even when they know they should.’’

Legislators said they also want to question Mullan over the extent of his withholding of key information about the light fixture dropping in the Thomas P. O’Neill tunnel Feb. 8, and the discovery days later that nine other lights were so corroded they were in immediate danger of falling.

“It’s troubling to hear people saying they don’t write things down because it might get them in trouble,’’ said Senator Thomas M. McGee, a Democrat of Lynn and a cochairman of the Transportation Committee. “Questions need to be answered.’’

Representative William Straus, a Democrat of Mattapoisett and cochairman of the Transportation Committee, focused on what the Globe termed a “culture of secrecy’’ at the agency.

Governor Deval Patrick, speaking through a spokesman, declined comment on the Globe’s report on Mullan’s management of the light fixture situation.

Mullan said in a statement, “The Globe’s story revisits some of our previously admitted mistakes from last winter. The story also demonstrates that we have more work to do in reforming the transportation culture.’’

“We have made progress [on maintenance] and the tunnels are safe,’’ the statement continued.

“Any inference that safety concerns in our tunnels . . . are neglected or not reported is false,’’ the statement said. “There is zero tolerance for any disregard for public safety and anyone who is found to be negligent would be terminated.’’

Mullan has presented shifting versions of what he knew about the situation and when he knew it. He has also admitted he was wrong to have tried to justify his agency’s withholding for more than five weeks the fact that a light fell because he wanted to prevent a public panic.

Yesterday, Mullan said in the statement, “We have worked tirelessly to create a culture committed to safety and customer service at MassDOT with an unflinching commitment to openness and transparency.’’

Senator Robert L. Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican and member of the legislative oversight committee on transportation, said he was calling for an immediate hearing on what is happening in the Transportation Department.

“Somebody needs to hold the executive branch accountable [and] that’s our role,’’ he said.

Still, McGee and Straus expressed confidence in Mullan.

“It’s clear he should have handled this better,’’ Straus said. “I don’t give him high marks. But I am not giving him a pass. It’s a tough job and if there is anyone who can learn from it and perform better, it’s Jeff Mullan.’’

McGee said, “He’s done a good job’’ in merging the Turnpike Authority and Highway Department into the Transportation Department.

Representative Denise Provost, a Somerville Democrat and Transportation Committee member, said the department has had four transportation secretaries in five years. Keeping Mullan provides needed stability, she said.

“It is disturbing to know the reaction time to the corrosion was quite slow,’’ she said. “But you don’t want too much churn at the top.’’

Hedlund said that in addition to concerns over the agency’s secretiveness, he is upset that Frank Tramontozzi, former acting highway administrator, was fired to help quell a political firestorm created in March to a large degree by Mullan. He said Tramontozzi was straightforward and candid in his dealings with him.

“I do believe he has been made a fall guy,’’ Hedlund said.

Asked about his level of confidence in Mullan, Hedlund responded, “I have a lot less confidence in Secretary Mullan after reading this article.’’

The Globe, citing internal e-mails and Transportation Department reports, wrote that engineers adopted a deliberate practice of avoiding writing reports on incidents such as the light fixture falling because they thought it safer to not create a document trail that could come back to haunt them.

“We have been trained not to’’ write reports, said Helmut Ernst, the engineer in charge of the Big Dig tunnels. “Things happen every day. You don’t need a record. You need time to operate, too.’’

The article also raised new questions about the completeness and accuracy of Mullan’s public statements. In March, he told reporters he had withheld disclosure of the fallen light fixture in order to first complete a thorough investigation.

When he came under criticism the next day from McGee, Straus, and others, Mullan admitted he made a mistake to withhold disclosure and promised “it won’t happen again.’’

Later that week, Mullan told the Globe that he had misled the public in his press conference by taking blame for reporting delays when in fact he had not known about the fallen light for weeks.

The Globe reported yesterday that, far from having completed a thorough investigation by the time of the press conference, the agency had waited almost six weeks to send the light for laboratory testing - a crucial step to determine the cause of corrosion.

Moreover, inspections had proceeded slowly: No inspections occurred for three days in the first week after the fixture fell.

The Globe reported that a week after the fixture fell, inspectors found an area near the Interstate 90 Connector Tunnel portal where the fixtures were heavily corroded. Mullan never revealed that.

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at