Expert warned lights a danger

Sounded alert 2 weeks before public was told

By Sean P. Murphy
Globe Staff / March 26, 2011

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A senior state engineer warned that faulty overhead lights in the Big Dig tunnel system were a “big deal’’ that threatened public safety more than two weeks before transportation officials informed the public, according to internal e-mails released yesterday.

“About 5% of those checked so far are showing advanced deterioration to the point they are no longer safe,’’ wrote Helmut Ernst, chief engineer for the Boston area, on March 1. He added that replacing all the lights could cost $200 million.

Ernst’s e-mail, written to another transportation official, shows the mounting concern within the Transportation Department following a Feb. 8 incident in which a 110-pound light fixture crashed to the highway inside the Thomas P. “Tip’’ O’Neill Jr. tunnel.

But the public did not learn of the potential danger until March 16, a lapse in communications that yesterday forced the resignation of a top transportation official and roiled the entire agency, which is responsible for maintaining the state’s major highways, bridges, and tunnels.

Frank A. Tramontozzi, who had been serving as the state’s acting highway administrator, resigned after an internal investigation blamed him for critical lapses in communication that kept the public in the dark. Ernst said he had briefed Tramontozzi about the fallen light fixture on Feb. 9, but Tramontozzi didn’t tell his boss, Transportation Secretary Jeffrey B. Mullan, until March 8, the investigation found.

Tramontozzi, who could not be reached for comment, has said he did not know about the lighting mishap until Feb. 25.

Transportation officials insist that the tunnel lighting is safe after inspecting all 23,000 overhead lights in the Big Dig system. They say that only one other fixture was nearly as corroded as the one that collapsed, though more than 300 showed some corrosion. They still don’t know how much repairs could cost, but insist the final price will be far less than Ernst’s predicted $200 million.

Public anxiety about tunnel safety has been heightened since the 2006 tunnel ceiling collapse that killed a Jamaica Plain woman, and the five-week delay in telling the public about potentially hazardous lights overhead set off a political storm.

Patrick, who was not informed of the problem until March 15, said that another highway official had also been reprimanded. The governor said that he communicated his displeasure about the incident to Mullan personally.

“The secretary has felt the burn himself, from me, meaning that I’ve been very clear that I will not accept this again,’’ Patrick said.

A 15-page summary of the transportation department investigation, released yesterday, suggests that transportation officials responded aggressively to the fallen fixture, but repeatedly failed to communicate their concerns to their own boss, Mullan, or to the broader public and Patrick.

But the report is also damaging to Mullan, who appears to have no knowledge that there was any problem with the lights until March 1, when a deputy sends him a copy of Ernst’s warning that the light problem is a “big deal’’ that threatens the public.

Even then, Mullan didn’t respond for four days and Mullan said that he was not fully briefed until March 8.

In fact, it was one of the department’s legislative liaisons, Roy Avellaneda, who appeared to sense the potential gravity of the lighting problem first. Avellaneda asked Ernst for more details on the lighting issue, prompting Ernst’s March 1 warning. In his e-mail, Ernst said that roughly 400 of the 8,000 light fixtures that had been inspected so far showed so much corrosion that they were unsafe, something he called a “big deal.’’

Avellaneda forwarded Ernst’s alarming e-mail to Joseph Landolfi, an assistant secretary and longtime government press aide, who in turned forwarded it to Mullan.

“Were you finally briefed on this? Its potentially a big deal,’’ Landolfi wrote to Mullan.

On March 5, Mullan finally replied: “Not yet.’’

When Mullan held a press conference on the corroding light fixtures on March 16, Tramontozzi stood at his side. On that day, Mullan said he had decided not to disclose the problem until his staff could thoroughly investigate. He gave no indication that he had been left in the dark for a month.

Yet Mullan would soon shift his position. Under criticism from legislative leaders and others, he publicly acknowledged a mistake in judgment.

“Knowing what I know now, with the benefit of hindsight, I made an error,’’ he said in an interview with the Globe. “I should have released this information sooner. . . . That won’t happen again.’’

Then word began to circulate that Mullan still had not told the whole story. On Wednesday, March 23, he admitted in an interview that he did not know about the lighting issue until March due to a “lapse in internal communication.’’

“I should have known earlier, no question about it,’’ he said.

Ironically, Tramontozzi, 54, was named engineer of the year in 2010 by the New England Section of the Institute of Transportation Engineers — a fact he kept to himself until one of his colleagues happened to learn of the honor.

Tramontozzi had been named acting administrator of the highway division in early March 2011 when his predecessor stepped down due to a family illness. By then, the events that would lead to his resignation had already begun.

Tramontozzi, who headed the city of Boston’s transportation department in the 1990s, joined the state highway agency in 2007.

His salary was $120,000 per year, and he is scheduled to receive $23,753.66 for unused vacation time, state officials said.

Mullan and Patrick spoke separately to reporters outside the governor’s office yesterday morning. Mullan said there had been a “complete communication breakdown’’ in his department. He acknowledged that he played a role in that breakdown, but said he would not resign.

He said that Frank DePaola, assistant general manager for design and construction at the MBTA, had been chosen to replace Tramontozzi.

The cause of the fixture failure, meanwhile, remains uncertain.

Each fixture contains two long fluorescent tubes housed in an aluminum frame; that frame is hooked by a set of stainless steel clips to another aluminum frame that, in turn, is bolted to the concrete ceiling.

The light that fell showed that the rail of the aluminum frame had corroded beneath all 10 clips. Another fixture had corrosion under 9 of its 10 clips, though most fixtures showed little or no corrosion.

In all, about 3,000 of the 230,000 clips securing the lights were no longer holding on to anything because the aluminum had corroded, state officials said.

Sean Murphy’s e-mail is

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