Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Inside Dirt - Vol. 1

Stories from the Big Dig they don't want you to hear.

As promised, here is the first installment in a series of posts detailing my personal observations from my years on the Big Dig (see this post for additional information). As we prepare for takeoff, please fasten your seat belts, return your seats to a full upright position and secure the tray to the seatback in front of you.

The finger pointing has kicked into high gear over the disaster we call the Central Artery/Tunnel Project here in Boston (aka: The Big Dig, the Project). With every news story that comes out, the authorities seem to be getting closer and closer to the heart of the matter. Whether they actually figure it out is another story altogether. That is where yours truly comes in. Consider these posts a Public Service Announcement of sorts.

From the Boston Globe (03/16/05):

AG probes Big Dig firms; Romney rips Amorello

Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly has opened a fraud investigation of Big Dig contractors Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff and Modern Continental Construction Co., focusing on what Reilly called poor oversight and shoddy work that left the tunnels plagued with leaks, defective walls, and damaged fireproofing.

More on the "poor oversight" issue later - and pay attention, because THIS is the heart of the problem, of that I have no doubt. But, back to the Boston Globe article for now.

Reilly disclosed the probe on a day of intense reaction to yesterday's Boston Globe story in which highly regarded tunnel engineer Jack K. Lemley, who led the investigation of the project's leaks, said he can no longer say with confidence that the Big Dig is safe to drive in.

Now, Mr. Lemley is not declaring the tunnel to be unsafe, per se, but this recent change in his assessment of the Project comes on the heels of an apparently deliberate attempt by the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority (MTA) to prevent investigators from gaining access to certain project record documents.

Romney said he is especially concerned about Lemley's statement that the Turnpike Authority had blocked his access to key documents and data related to the hundreds of leaks in the Big Dig's tunnels.

"This is intolerable," Romney said. Referring to Amorello, he said: "The culture of obstruction and coverup starts at the very top."

Now, if they are referring to the documents I think they are (or at least the documents they SHOULD be focusing on), it will spell BIG trouble for the higher-ups in both the MTA and Project Management Consultants, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff (B/PB). This is where the issue of poor, or outright incompetent oversight comes into play...BIGTIME.

Reilly, meanwhile, said his fraud investigation would be carried out under the state's false claim act, which was established to root out corruption in government contracting. The statute makes it a crime for contractors to submit invoices or other demands for payments for work that was not done.


"It can be a criminal matter," Reilly said. "Bechtel was hired to design it and oversee the management, including the work of Modern Continental, and they didn't do their job. That's where our focus is."

So, how does this oversight take place?

The Project, from the beginning, was divided up into many smaller projects, or contracts. These contracts would then individually be put out to bid, and awarded accordingly. This means the work on adjacent tunnel sections could be performed by different general contractors, both under the direct oversight of B/PB inspectors. There was nothing wrong with setting the project up this way. In fact, it makes perfect sense to have the oversight and inspection work done by a single agency, for reasons of coordination and consistency.

Let's look at what happens at ground level (or below ground, as the case may be). Every Big Dig contract has a field office for its B/PB staff, out of which a majority of oversight and record keeping is performed. The typical B/PB field office staff consists of a Resident Engineer, a Lead Field Engineer, Field Engineers (number depends on the scope of the work), Office Engineer, Claims and Changes Coordinator, and administrative personnel. Again, this is the "typical" field office set-up, and not a standard set-in-stone across the Project.

As work progresses, it is the responsibility of the Field Engineers to review the contract documents, and approved shop drawings and material submittals, to ensure the work is done in accordance with the specification requirements. For instance, if a concrete drawing shows epoxy-coated reinforcing bar, and the contractor were to try to cut corners by using plain steel rebar, it would be the job of the Field Engineer to alert the Contractor and make sure the error was corrected prior to signing off on the work.

As I mentioned previously, I worked for Bechtel on the Big Dig in varying capacities. I worked as a field engineer for one of the four contracts that make up the Leverett Circle Connector Ramp. Side note: of those four contracts, the one on which I had oversight responsibilities was the only one to receive a passing grade on the initial Federal Highways (FHWA) inspection.

Now, what do you suppose would be the qualifications a job candidate must possess to be considered for the position of Field Engineer? It should be a no-brainer - a degree in civil or construction engineering might be a good start. Actual experience in the construction industry and familiarity with materials and methods used on the Project would certainly be an asset to someone seeking such a position.

Well, as the project transitioned from the design phase to the construction phase, they started hiring for these positions based on such criteria. Early construction work on the Project included the South Boston Haul Road, downtown utility realignment, the immersed tube Ted Williams Tunnel, and other contracts outside the mainline tunnel downtown.

As the work progressed and the scope of the Project grew, the size of the B/PB staff increased accordingly, in all facets of the work (e.g. procurement, administrative support, finance and accounting, engineering and design, and construction). Then one day, the inevitable happened - political correctness reared its ugly head.

Suddenly, "diversity" was the big buzzword. The Project began holding mandatory diversity awareness training seminars for ALL project personnel. As a result, meticulous records were kept detailing the numbers of women and minority employees in every department, and at every pay grade. Some of this, I believe, was carried out under the guidelines established for public work receiving federal funds. To some extent, the Project's hands were tied when it came to complying with these requirements coming out of Washington.

As efforts to maintain the proper employment quotas stepped up, these tracking efforts yielded an interesting observation. The actual construction jobs (i.e. Field Engineers) were held by an overwhelming percentage of, you guessed it, white males. Clearly some kind of a racist conspiracy was at work here (that was sarcasm for those who might have picked up on that). But, rather than encouraging more qualified women and minority candidates to apply for these position, a more direct strategy was put into place.

A subsequent plan was kicked off to promote, from within, women and minority employees into these important positions with seemingly little regard to their qualifications or educational background. If you were a woman or minority working as a secretary or other administrative support position, and thought it would be neat to put on a hardhat and walk around downtown, the jobs were yours for the taking. Just sign up for an in-house class on how to read blueprints, or have the right connections and - PRESTO! - you're a qualified construction field inspector.

Now, come on folks. Honestly, what's more important? A diverse work place where we can be exposed to all sorts of wonderful people from varying cultural backgrounds (read: gender and skin color) or having a qualified group of individuals (regardless of gender or skin color) overseeing the largest tax-payer funded transportation construction project in the country?

Back now to the records being sought by the Attorney General's office.

If I were Tom Reilly (shudder), I would go after the B/PB Field Engineer's Daily Reports. All Field Engineers are required to keep a field book of hand-written notes, recording in detail the work that took place on that day, any and all deficiencies observed, and whatever corrective measures were implemented in the field as a result thereof. These notebooks then become part of the official project records.

In addition to these hand-written notes, the Field Engineers are required to input all the pertinent information into the computer records stored in the Project database. The software used by the field staff then generates a hard-copy printout of the Engineer's Daily Report, that has the Engineer's name printed on it and is signed by the Engineer. These reports are typically filed chronologically in large three-ring binders.

Should the AG get his hands on these reports, and the contents therein made public, it would come as no surprise to me to see the names of unqualified individuals on the reports covering the tunnel slurry wall construction activities at the locations where the now-known deficiencies have come to light. Note: If, upon review of these particular records, my claim here proves not to be valid, I will be the first to acknowledge that and immediately publish a retraction.

I won't name names here or offer other specifics, but it stands to reason if unqualified employees are "fast-tracked" from the position of secretary or office clerk to that of a Field Engineer, responsible for day-to-day oversight of construction activities, it would be grossly unrealistic to expect anything but substandard oversight as a direct result of that individual's promotion.

The Big Dig has turned into the biggest sham in the history of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. And the worst part of all of this is just how preventable this entire mess was from the beginning. The day the project fell victim to political correctness, and embraced feel-good, do-nothing policy (not to mention a certain disregard for public safety) over responsible and judicious use of taxpayer's money, was the day the battle was lost.

And, I'm just getting warmed up here. Future posts in this series will tend to be more light-hearted, intended mostly for entertainment purposes. That doesn't mean they won't involve the irresponsible misuse of your tax dollars. It just means you might actually be able to have a laugh at some of this B.S.

Next up - Vol. 2: Riding The Wave of 80's Technology into the 21st Century