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Big dig reckoning

By A Boston Globe Editorial, Globe Staff, 2/12/200

BECHTEL PARSONS/Brinckerhoff, the giant engineering partnership, has been a fixture on the Central Artery project for 18 years. It is time for an assessment of its work, and the Romney administration ought to make sure it is done by competent independent engineers and officials.

C. Matthew Wiley, Bechtel's program manager, contends that the partnership has worked to the highest professional standards, but Globe Staff members Sean P. Murphy and Raphael Lewis, in a series of articles this week, report that design errors have inflated the cost of the project by $1.1 billion. With the cost of the project ballooning to at least $14.6 billion, the state should make every effort to recover money for faulty work.

The statute of limitations has run out on much of the work, and prior efforts to recoup costs have been pitiful. Inquiries by the Artery/tunnel project's cost recovery committee have resulted in the return of only $35,707, and that was from a subcontractor, not Bechtel.

The roots of the problem go back to the original decision by Frederick Salvucci, the progenitor of the project, to make Bechtel both the project manager and the overall supervisor of design contracts. Salvucci established a committee of high-ranking public officials to monitor the work, but this was disbanded by the Weld administration. As construction began in earnest in the 1990s, the 50-person state work force was dwarfed by the 900-plus contingent from the partnership. In effect, Bechtel was policing itself.

The Turnpike Authority began preliminary inquiries a year and a half ago, when board members Jordan Levy and Christy Mihos began raising questions about Bechtel. But a power vacuum existed at the authority at the time, and Levy and Mihos seemed to want to kick Bechtel off the job, which would have been a disaster while much of the project remained unfinished. Matthew J. Amorello became chairman a year ago and restored strong management to the authority.

Just before the Globe series was published, the authority appointed Edward M. Ginsburg, a retired family court judge, to look into cost recovery. But the Turnpike Authority has been overseeing Bechtel for the past six years, ever since it took over responsibility for construction. Even though Amorello is untainted by past artery problems, the authority lacks the institutional distance from Bechtel to undertake a dispassionate investigation.

Governor Romney, because he has no relationship with Bechtel, is better positioned to begin an inquiry. However, he proposes to give the work to a competing engineering company. The size of its fee would depend on the amount of money it recovered.

This arrangement would establish an adversarial relationship with Bechtel that would do the project no good as it nears completion in 2005. Romney should instead select a committee of outside experts in law and engineering who do not have a financial stake in the outcome. The Turnpike Authority, because it is ultimately responsible for the quality of construction, should defray the cost.

Secretary of State Wiliam J. Galvin is drafting legislation to extend the statute of limitations. That might be helpful to the cost recovery efforts, but the top priority is an independent, impartial investigation.

Relations between Romney and Amorello are complicated by the governor's proposal to fold the authority into the state Highway Department. This cannot be done without legislative approval. Amorello's support of an outside investigation would show that the Turnpike Authority does not confuse independence with irresponsibility.

This story ran on page A18 of the Boston Globe on 2/12/2003.
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