Repair workers working on suspended tunnel ceiling near where accident occurred.
(Photo by Associated Press)

Massachusetts officials have closed the Interstate 90 connector tunnel in Boston indefinitely as preliminary inspections turned up at least 60 suspect roof anchors supporting precast concrete air plenum panels. The 40-ft X 12-ft ceiling panel modules are being inspected over a 200-ft section of the tunnel, a portion of the $14.6-billion Central Artery/Tunnel project, following a late night collapse on July 10 that killed Milena Del Valle, 38, a passenger in a car driven by her husband Angel Del Valle, who suffered minor injuries. The tunnel connects I-90 to the Ted Williams Tunnel and Logan International Airport.

Massachusetts Turnpike Authority Chairman Matthew J. Amorello, who oversees the most expensive highway project in U.S. history, ordered the closure and inspections of about 15 modules on each side of the road after it was determined that nine imbedded anchors grouted into the tunnel roof gave way in a cascading fashion above the eastbound lane, leading to the module collapse. Each module contains five, 12-ft X 8-ft panels and weighs at least 10 tons. The remainder of the tunnel uses a unistrut system cast into the roof. The connector opened in 2003 but Modern Continental Construction Co, Inc, Cambridge, installed the panels in 1999. Modern issued a statement saying its ‘work fully complied with the plans and specifications provided by the Central Artery Tunnel Project’ and that the work was inspected and approved.

Inspectors from the Federal Highway Administration and the state are on site as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and subpoenas have been issued to project consultant Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff and Modern. STS, Chicago, HNTB, Boston and other firms have been called in to inspect all tunnel infrastructure including the I-93 tunnel complex and the Zakim Bunker Hill cable-stayed bridge. “Bechtel/ Parsons Brinckerhoff will cooperate fully with investigators but given that they are just starting to gather facts we have no further comment at this point,” says Andy Paven, B/PB spokesman.

CA/T replaced an antiquated 50-year old elevated highway running through downtown Boston. But escalating costs—a smaller version of the CA/T initially was figured at $2.3 billion—and tunnels leaks and charges of fraud and inferior concrete use have dimmed the project’s luster. The Del Valle death is the latest in a series of problems and may have far-reaching consequences as a host of politicians have jumped onto the incident.

Gov. Mitt Romney (R), is again calling for Amorello to step down and State Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly (D) has designated the site a crime scene and impounded the panels. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino is seeking an independent investigation. Inspection work could be slowed because of legal requirements for photographing and cataloging all materials.

Amorello was appointed turnpike chairman in early 2003 following contentious board meetings over cost escalation and recovery that led to the removal of his predecessor, James J. Kerasiotes. The authority questioned B/PB’s oversight.  Amorello has been the object of Romney’s ire since debris fell onto the I-93 tunnel roadway and the discovery of numerous leaks in the I-93 tunnel, which prompted a public outcry and several contactor-funded remedies, Modern among them.

Amorello says he has no intention of stepping down. Romney has presidential aspirations and Reilly is hoping to become governor but faces a stiff primary. Reilly has been criticized for his tepid pursuit of cost recovery actions and has acknowledged receiving campaign contributions from CA/T contractors.