Romney faced leadership test in Big Dig tragedy

By Andrew Miga

Associated Press

Published: Monday, May 21 2012 1:40 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this July 14, 2006, file photo, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney uses a map of the Big Dig tunnels to make a point about potential trouble spots during an afternoon briefing in Boston. Romney was at his New Hampshire vacation home on a summer night in 2006 when tons of concrete ceiling panels in one of Boston’s Big Dig highway tunnels collapsed. The debris crushed a car and killed a female passenger. Romney, then in his final year as Massachusetts governor, dashed back to Boston and immersed himself in the crisis. His response offers insights into what kind of leader the expected Republican nominee would be if elected president. Romney has made his management skills a major selling point in his campaign.

Celina Fang, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney was at his New Hampshire vacation home on a summer night in 2006 when 26 tons of concrete ceiling panels in one of Boston's Big Dig highway tunnels collapsed, crushing a car and killing a female passenger.

Romney, then in his final year as Massachusetts governor, dashed back to Boston and immersed himself in the crisis. Wearing a hard hat, orange safety vest and jeans, the usually buttoned-down Republican seemed to relish the role of the hands-on chief executive tackling a public emergency before television news cameras.

The Big Dig collapse offers insights into the kind of leader the expected Republican nominee would be if elected president. Romney has made his management skills a major selling point in his presidential campaign.

Yet his stiffest leadership test as governor produced mixed results.

Romney was praised, even by some Democrats, for his energetic, take-charge management style. But he also drew criticism for playing to the media and dodging personal blame.

One move he made was to blame fellow Republican Matt Amorello, chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, an independent agency largely outside the governor's control that was overseeing the project.

Later, however, it was Romney who was faulted for not taking stronger action to fix the problem-plagued Big Dig well before the collapse.

"He was all sizzle and no steak," said former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee.

Romney's campaign didn't respond to requests for comment.

His administration bungled one response to the collapse by hiring Big Dig project manager Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff to inspect the ceiling repairs. Bechtel oversaw construction of the tunnel, so giving it the job of judging its own work created a conflict of interest; Romney later admitted it was a mistake. Bechtel at the time was a focus of state and federal investigations into the collapse.

For that foul-up, Romney blamed his transportation secretary, prompting a sarcastic swipe in a Boston Herald editorial: "If there's glory to be gained in handling a crisis, count on Gov. Mitt Romney to show up in person to grab it. If there is blame to be swallowed, well, isn't that what subordinates are for?"

Romney, too, had ignored warnings from state Sen. Marc Pacheco, chairman of a legislative oversight panel, that Bechtel officials were too cozy with turnpike authority officials overseeing the project. Pacheco had urged Romney to suspend Bechtel. Federal investigators later found that the lack of a tunnel inspection program contributed to the fatal accident.

"It was essentially the proverbial fox guarding the chickens," said Pacheco, a Democrat. "It continued under Romney's watch."

The $15 billion Big Dig replaced an elevated highway that ran through Boston with a series of tunnels, ramps and bridges. The project was plagued for two decades by mismanagement, design flaws, cost overruns, leaks, falling debris and other problems linked to faulty construction.

The accident was a prime opportunity for former businessman Romney to showcase his management skills. He was facing criticism for ignoring the state's needs with his growing schedule of out-of-state travels as he prepped for an expected White House run in 2008.

Romney wasn't shy about stepping before the TV cameras to reassure a jittery public. He prowled the cavernous Big Dig tunnels flanked by engineers and investigators. At times he sounded more like an engineer than a politician as he explained details of the collapse in televised news conferences.

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