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Big Dig settlement will take quick hit

$100m is needed for immediate fixes

Attorney General Martha Coakley, US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan (right) and State Police Superintendent Mark Delaney announced terms of the Big Dig settlement yesterday. Attorney General Martha Coakley, US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan (right) and State Police Superintendent Mark Delaney announced terms of the Big Dig settlement yesterday. (MICHELE MCDONALD/GLOBE STAFF)
Email|Print| Text size + By Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / January 24, 2008

About $100 million of the landmark $458 million Big Dig settlement will be quickly drained to fix a long list of defects, many previously undisclosed, from cracked sidewalks and crosswalks to failing fireproofing, faulty wiring, and deteriorated joints between sections of roadways.

Although state and federal law enforcement officials announced yesterday that the money would primarily be used for "future nonroutine" repairs and maintenance, the state's secretary of transportation, speaking shortly afterward, said a quarter of it would be needed immediately to fix an array of flaws that already mar the system.

"I would say there is $100 million worth of repair work and monitoring and inspection work that needs to be done over the next year," said Bernard Cohen.

"The agreement resolves a big uncertainty that has hovered over us for the last year and a half or more, that is, how are we going to repair the defects in the Central Artery/Tunnel project?" he said.

Cohen's comments make clear that a significant portion of the settlement - portrayed by other state and federal officials as, in large part, a penalty against Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff - will be plowed into existing problems that the state inherited when the consortium ended its involvement in the project last month.

Under the agreement announced yesterday, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, which oversaw the Big Dig design and construction, will pay the bulk of the settlement, $407 million. Two dozen other design firms will pay about $51 million among them.

The settlement amount represented restitution and punishment for Big Dig leaks, poor oversight of billings, improperly constructed slurry walls, and a 2006 ceiling collapse in the Interstate 90 tunnel that killed Milena Del Valle of Jamaica Plain, said authorities.

But Cohen and the Turnpike Authority can use the money, most of which will be placed in a special trust fund, to address immediate Big Dig problems not necessarily related to those issues, as long as the federal government approves.

"We were assured by Bechtel that the tunnels were ready, and when we signed documents that said the tunnels were ready, it was inferred the work was up to speed," said Mac Daniel, spokesman for the Turnpike Authority. "These were promises made by Bechtel when they signed the contract."

The agreement allows Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff to avoid criminal charges in the ceiling collapse. It also allows the consortium to participate in future federal and state government construction work.

"We have always said that we take responsibility for our work," John MacDonald, chairman of Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, said in a written statement. "We understand and acknowledge with this resolution that our performance did not meet our commitment to the public or our own expectations. Above all, we deeply regret the tragic death of Milena Del Valle in the I-90 tunnel.

"Protracted legal proceedings would have served no one well, and we believe that this resolution is in the interests of all concerned," MacDonald said.

State and federal officials who negotiated the settlement with Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff said the agreement was a fair result.

"Massachusetts Highway and the citizens of Massachusetts entrusted Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff to act as their eyes and ears on the Central Artery Project," US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan said at a press conference held yesterday in the office of state Attorney General Martha Coakley. "They grossly failed to meet their obligation and responsibilities to the citizens of Massachusetts and the United States."

According to Sullivan, the consortium's payment of $407 million represents close to three times its actual profits on the project over 20 years.

In addition to $415 million that will be placed in a trust fund, money will go to the federal government ($23.5 million), a state road and bridge repair fund ($17 million), the City of Boston ($1.8 million), the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority ($700,000), the MBTA ($142,000), and a whistleblower ($150,000).

Authorities can seek additional damages from Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff in the event of a major failure in the project that causes more than $50 million in damage.

Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff agreed in the settlement that it failed to adequately monitor the construction of the now-leaking I-93 tunnel, the installation of epoxy ceiling bolts in the I-90 tunnel, and the work of contractors who overbilled the government or provided substandard materials.

If the company publicly contradicts the facts that were contained in the settlement, it is subject to a $1 million fine.

Coakley said she had "sufficient evidence to indict" Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, but chose to seek a financial settlement because the maximum penalty a corporation faces for manslaughter in Massachusetts is a $1,000 fine.

"The amount of money that has been paid and will be paid over the next several days and months as a means of punishment and restitution to the Commonwealth for the flaws in the system far outweigh what we could have accomplished certainly in a criminal indictment and perhaps even in a complicated and endless appeals in a civil matter."

Under the agreement, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff will be required to conduct its own investigation and report in 180 days on any defects that could lead to another catastrophe like the I-90 tunnel ceiling collapse.

According to Sullivan, only a small fraction of the settlement, about $30 million, will be paid through insurance.

The settlement amount is significantly larger than any amount state and federal authorities had been previously been able to negotiate from Big Dig firms.

Coakley's predecessor, Thomas F. Reilly, had all but finalized a deal to settle for $86 million, but Sullivan rejected the deal.

The agreement does not directly affect a lawsuit against Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff and other companies filed by the family of Del Valle, who was killed when a section of the ceiling fell on July 10, 2006.

But lawyers for the family said they hope that Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff will now step forward and settle the civil claims.

"We're glad Bechtel could have been prosecuted," said Jeffrey Denner of Denner Pellegrino, a Boston law firm, who represents Del Valle's husband, Angel. "We're glad they paid $400 million not to be prosecuted. Now it's important for Bechtel and their umbrella companies to stand up and once and for all take responsibility for the real tragedy of the Big Dig, which is the death of Milena Del Valle."

So far, only Powers Fasteners Inc. of Brewster, N.Y. has settled with the family, agreeing in December to pay $6 million. Powers, which provided the epoxy blamed for the collapse, is the only company facing criminal charges.

Coakley said the settlement brings closure to much of the legal wrangling, but said she doesn't know whether taxpayers got their money's worth on the $15 billion project.

"If you look at the Big Dig today - whether you look at the Zakim Bridge at dusk or in early morning, when you realize there is increased efficiency for traffic in and out of Boston and particularly when you look at the beautification of the Greenway that used to be covered by rusting overpasses that are now gone - we can well ask whether this was a good bargain . . . whether we got what we paid for," she said.

"I do not have that answer for you today, and we may never get it."

Sean P. Murphy of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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