from the Herald, don’t read this if you have no choice and must drive through these tunnels.
State tossing millions at ongoing Dig leak problems
State transportation workers are struggling to plug Big Dig tunnel leaks that gush as much as 1.4 million gallons of water a month, driving up repair costs in the notorious money pit known as the Central Artery by millions of dollars each year.
Despite what acting highway administrator Frank DePaola of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation called a “vigilant” ongoing effort, the persistent leaks are at least partially to blame for the crumbling fireproofing, corroded lighting and concrete falling from tunnel walls and ceilings that have plagued the Central Artery’s tunnels, according to inspection reports.
“It’s no secret that we still have water saturating the tunnels,” said DePaola, who said state officials corrected a series of critical issues raised in reports almost immediately. “Water is an issue that everyone with underground tunnels has to deal with. . . . We manage the water and we make sure it doesn’t cause immediate threats.”
Leaks have repeatedly been an issue over the past decade, with whistle-blowers and internal memos revealing concerns about shoddy material, while Big Dig managers made repairs and insisted the tunnels were safe. One federal engineering report endorsed a Central Artery prediction that all leaks would be sealed by September 2005.
The state has been spending $12 million a year to patch up the leaks for the past several years and doled out $13 million over the past three years to replace fireproofing in the tunnels — much of which has been lost due to leaks, according to transportation officials and inspection reports. Last year’s total for leaks and fireproofing topped $16 million.
Officials pay for the pricey upkeep out of the $458 million Central Artery trust fund created after contractors who built the $15 billion system — originally projected at less than $3 billion — settled criminal and civil charges after a Jamaica Plain woman was crushed to death by a falling ceiling panel. At the current rate of repairs, that fund could be tapped out in less than 30 years, while the tunnels were meant to last 100 years.
“The cost of maintaining this will be horrific,” said Jack Lemley, an engineer and former Big Dig consultant who “wasn’t a bit surprised” by the escalating cost of the leaks.
Lemley said that underground structures are supposed to be as watertight as possible, and the Big Dig construction work is “substandard.”
“The leakage will over time wind up corroding all of the steel fixtures . . . lights falling off, fire protection damage, all that will continue on,” Lemley said.
The Big Dig tunnels have been plagued with fireproofing and light fixtures plunging onto the heavily trafficked roadways this year. A 110-pound light crashed onto the road of the Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. Tunnel in February, while a 2-by-2-foot section of fireproofing dropped from the I-90 tunnel in late April.
Lemley said the fund isn’t enough, meaning taxpayers will likely pick up the tab for the leaks.
“I calculated the maintenance costs, and that fund is about $200 million short,” Lemley said.
The inspection reports, all completed in the past year, detailed leak-related problems that include:
• A heavily corroded and rusted electricity box hanging by only a few wires over the I-93 southbound highway under Dewey Square. Inspectors quickly secured the box on April 12 last year, writing, “these abandoned electrical boxes above the roadway should either be properly secured . . . or removed.”
• An April 5, 2010, inspection found a light in the I-93 southbound exit ramp to Purchase Street covered with “a heavy buildup of salt encrustation” due to a leak directly above it. Stalactites from dripping water were found on another light nearby.
• A July 7, 2010, inspection flagged a “hollow sounding” slab of concrete on the roof, which readily crumbled away using hand tools, as a “critical hazard deficiency” that needed to be repaired immediately.