Fatality adds to long list of Big Dig's woes

Tons of concrete from a section of a tunnel fell on a car Monday in Boston.

The collapse of a portion of a tunnel's concrete ceiling, which killed a motorist and crushed the car in which she was riding, is the latest setback for Boston's Big Dig – the nation's most expensive public-works project.

Massachusetts Turnpike Authority Chairman Matthew Amorello blamed a failed steel "tieback" that gave way, letting loose a 40-foot ceiling section over Interstate 90.

"We will leave no stone unturned" in investigating the cause of the accident, Mr. Amorello said at a press conference Tuesday morning. "We feel awful about what happened last night. It's an awful, awful tragedy."

The incident comes more than a year after the Federal Highway Administration declared the $14.6 billion Big Dig project – which buried Boston's major downtown highway arteries in a technically complex tunnel system – safe for drivers.

Milena Delvalle is the first motorist killed because of Big Dig troubles. Her death adds to the disappointment surrounding America's most expensive federally funded construction effort.

Since its conception in 1987, the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel Project has been plagued by technical challenges, spiraling costs, and allegations of corruption.

The immensity of the project has inspired a range of emotions – from awe to chagrin – from local residents, state officials, and even presidents.

"It rivals anything in the history of the world built by men," Amorello said in December 2003, when the project was completed. "This is the opening of the Panama Canal. This is an incredible achievement."

"For a lot of people in the region it will be seen as a major positive addition. The farther you move from Boston, the less positively people will view the project," David Luberoff, associate director of Harvard's Taubman Center for State and Local Government, said in 2003.

President Ronald Reagan tried unsuccessfully to veto the project.

But as an engineering feat, the Big Dig boasts some staggering statistics: 7.5 miles of underground roads required excavating 16 million cubic yards of dirt – just 20 percent less than the Chunnel Tunnel built to connect Britain and France.

Monday's tragedy comes two years after Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), who is rumored to be considering a bid for president in 2008, demanded that Amorello resign his post as director of the Turnpike Authority. Governor Romney was angered by revelations that several turnpike officials knew about leaks in the tunnel's structure preceding an incident in September 2004, when water and construction materials leaked onto the traffic lanes of Interstate 93.

Wire service reports were used in this story.

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