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The O'Neill name and the Big Dig -- all in the family

WHAT WOULD Tip think?

House Speaker Thomas P. ``Tip" O'Neill Jr. goes down in political history as the Big Dig's big booster. The legendary Democrat from North Cambridge stoked it with federal dollars, spurred by his belief that it was a transportation necessity and an economic boost.

Today, Thomas P. O'Neill III, the late speaker's son, represents Bechtel Corp. -- the company that helped supervise the project from dream to reality to fiasco.

This summer, tons of concrete crashed down from a connector tunnel ceiling, killing a woman. Since then, everything about Boston's Big Dig, from design and construction to inspection and maintenance, is under review and assault. And so is Tip O'Neill's vision.

So far, Bechtel, part of a joint venture that operates as the Big Dig's project manager, has little to say about the tragic turn of events. So does O'Neill.

``One of the great lessons I learned from my dad, that I hope every O'Neill child thereafter learns, is that you don't politicize tragedy," said O'Neill, during a brief telephone conversation.

Unfortunately, O'Neill can't pluck the politics from the business of building a $14.6 billion public works project. His father's name is emblazoned on a tunnel that was built under the supervision of the Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff project management team -- and subsequently cited for leaks.

Shouldn't Bechtel be accountable to the public -- and, by the way, to O'Neill family members, who hold their father's legacy so dear?

``I'm not going there with you," said Tip's son, who once was quoted as saying, ``The thought that I would take on a client that would hurt my family or myself is preposterous. It is wrong."

Over two decades, the Big Dig came to represent a complex and controversial transportation network -- and a complex and incestuous network of public- and private-sector interests. Government underwrote this massive public works project, which already carries a $14.6 billion price tag. Private contractors designed, supervised, and built it. The contractors hired an army of lawyers, lobbyists, and public relations experts to advocate on their behalf.

O'Neill and Associates is part of the army. The company website lists Bechtel as a client and showcases this quotation from C. Matthew Wiley, senior vice president of Bechtel: ``O'Neill and Associates has been a strong partner for Bechtel in the successful completion of the Central Artery/Tunnel Project, one of the world's most ambitious, complex and at times controversial construction projects."

The international company, headquartered in San Francisco, extended condolences to the family of Milena Del Valle, but said little beyond statements like this: ``Although we believe the project's engineering, construction and quality assurance processes were robust, a comprehensive review -- including design, construction, operations and maintenance -- is essential to restoring public confidence in this historic project."

You read such remarks and you think, something's lacking. What's missing is humanity -- any feeling for the little guy, or in this case, the 38-year old Jamaica Plain mother who died on her way to the airport.

The construction giant is not alone in ducking expressions of moral responsibility, in the effort to evade legal responsibility. Under the terms of its contract, the project manager -- Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff -- technically reports to state officials, who have ultimate sign-off authority. However, state officials were surely relying on what they believed they were paying for -- sophisticated engineering expertise.

Tom O'Neill said he believes ``the project is going to stand up over time." I believe that, too, in the sense that systemic flaws will be fixed and Boston's transportation lifeline will be restored. But the restoration comes at extraordinary cost, whether measured in public dollars or public cynicism.

At this point, the outcome is a great disservice to Tip O'Neill. According to ``Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century" written by John Aloysius Farrell, O'Neill was initially a reluctant Big Dig champion. But Fred Salvucci, the Massachusetts transportation secretary under Governor Michael S. Dukakis, ultimately won over O'Neill. The speaker ultimately won money from the Reagan administration; Bechtel's Republican connections helped.

Yet, even in victory, ``Tip came to worry that the Artery would be known as Tip's Folly," Farrell wrote.

For better and worse, from father to son, the O'Neill name is linked forever to Boston's Big Dig. Ironic, isn't it, that the son's client stands to undermine the father's legacy?

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

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