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July 18, 2006

Big Dig Death: Corruption of Privatization

The death last week due to faulty construction in the "Big Dig" construction project in Boston should be seen as a canary in the coal mine of the corruption and even murder due to privatization in this country.

A lot of conservatives might try to blame this on Massachusetts liberals, but the actual management of the project was handed over to the often GOP-allied Bechtel Corp. See this Boston Globe website for a decade plus of stories on privatization problems, but here are some key stories tracing the problem:

1994: Project poses a test for privatization- "Bechtel Corp...is head of a private partnership that will ultimately receive as much as $2 billion in contracts for managing the $7.7 billion Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel project...The conflict of interest, critics say, is that Bechtel is overseeing a project that it designed itself. Bechtel, as the lead firm in the joint venture responsible for managing the project, is also responsible for completing up to 40 percent of the engineering design work in some sections."

2004: Big Dig found riddled with leaks- "Engineers hired to investigate the cause of September's massive Big Dig tunnel leak have discovered that the project is riddled with hundreds of leaks that are pouring millions of gallons of water into the $14.6 billion tunnel system. While none of the leaks is as large as the fissure that snarled traffic for miles on Interstate 93 northbound in September, the breaches appear to permeate the subterranean road system, calling into question the quality of construction and managerial oversight provided by Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff on the massive highway project."

But here's my favorite story, which is a story about how the workers on the project knew Bechtel's management was a clusterfuck but were ignored:

2006: Workers doubted ceiling method- "Field tests by construction workers indicated that bolt-and-epoxy fasteners might not support the multi-ton ceiling panels in the Interstate 90 connector tunnel, but the firm that designed the tunnel persuaded Big Dig officials to use the system anyway, law enforcement officials said yesterday...The engineers also said they have discovered documents showing that Bechtel managers were aware that the wall breached this fall was deficient from the moment it was built in the late 1990s, yet did not order it replaced and did not inform state officials of the situation."

READ THAT LAST PARAGRAPH. Bechtel had workers complaining and documents showing that the roof in the tunnels were faulty, yet they covered it up, no doubt because they wanted to save money.

This is what comes from handing management of public projects to private entities with a conflict-of-interest between protecting the public and maximizing their own profits. And of course at the federal level, we've seen the frauds perpetuated by Haliburton and company.

Unfortunately, this kind of privatization is accelerating across the country, not just in construction projects but in handling children in foster care, evaluating health care systems and a range of other public services. But progressives should be focusing on the story of the Big Dig as one more example of why profit-making companies shouldn't be trusted to manage in the public interest.

Posted by Nathan at July 18, 2006 10:59 AM