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Federal highway chief headed the Boston project during a period of lax inspections

Don't repeat mistakesof Big Dig on new bridge Has anyone in Minnesota seen the final report of the National Transportation Safety Board on the interstate highway tragedy? No, not the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis on Aug. 1;...

Don't repeat mistakesof Big Dig on new bridge

Has anyone in Minnesota seen the final report of the National Transportation Safety Board on the interstate highway tragedy?

No, not the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis on Aug. 1; that report won't be completed for another 18 months. Rather, it's the report released on July 10 about the incident exactly a year before in which massive ceiling panels fell in one of Boston's Big Dig tunnels, crushing a 38-year-old woman to death and injuring her husband.

The report blames the epoxy and anchors that were supposed to hold the ceiling panels in place and cites lax inspections from their 1999 installation until 2006, when the panels fell. The epoxy company was particularly singled out, leading the Massachusetts attorney general to indict the corporation for manslaughter two weeks ago.

Yet the names of the four Big Dig CEOs who served during that time are nowhere to be found in the NTSB report.

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Why does it matter, and what does it have to do with Minnesota?

Well, one of those names is J. Richard Capka, the current Federal Highway Administrator responsible for the rebuilding of the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge. A retired U.S. Army Corps of Engineers brigadier general, Capka led the Big Dig from early 2001 to mid-2002.

The Star Tribune in Minneapolis reported last week that his service ended under a cloud after approving golden parachutes for former executives on the $14.7 billion project. The newspaper may have overdramatized the significance of that; the job leading the nation's largest-ever construction project was Massachusetts' ultimate political hot potato, racked with wild tales of cronyism, something minimized under Capka's charge. Even if his personnel skills were shaky, they wouldn't necessarily translate into shoddy construction practices.

But the NTSB report specifically cites instances during Capka's tenure that do address structural issues. In 2001 and 2002, engineers identified defective ceiling panel anchors and "slippage," the report says, that "did not generate deficiency reports, and no documentation was found to indicate what actions were taken in regard to these displaced anchors."

To be fair, the anchors had been a problem since they were installed during the reign of a far more flamboyant Big Dig chief than the soft-spoken Capka, and the panels fell under another. But by December 2001, the NTSB said, "it should have been obvious to [the contractors] that the remedy that had been developed in response to the anchor displacement ... in 1999 had not been effective." And if the contractors weren't on the ball, the CEO overseeing them should have been.

Capka's mind certainly was on the tunnel at that time. He cited the project in December 2001 as his New Year's resolution in a Boston Herald report. He promised, "A year from now, we should have opened, or will be ready to open shortly, the Mass. Pike [tunnel]." Though he left the project in mid-2002, the tunnel project made its goal, and the ceiling panel problem persisted under a new CEO.

Brig. Gen. Capka is an accomplished engineer. His years as head of the Federal Highway Administration have been controversy-free, though the agency obviously was lacking in its bridge inspection process. But the margin of error on massive public works projects must be zero. This time, we hope the general can assure Minnesotans of that.

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