MassDOT has some concrete problems

For journalists, the Big Dig is the gift that keeps on giving. For state transportation officials, it is the never-ending nightmare.

The latest problem for the $15 billion project is pieces of the roadway in the Tip O’Neill Tunnel that were supposed to last 30 years are crumbling after just 10 years, prompting $1 million in repairs and daytime work that is causing issues for drivers and could affect the morning and evening commutes.

According to Department of Transportation officials, the problem stems from the decision by project manager Bechtel/Parsons Brinkerhoff to use concrete on steep slopes in and out of the tunnel and at the entrance to the Zakim Bridge. The concrete is crumbling and separating from the steel reinforcements, causing potholes and other roadway defects and triggering lane closures while repairs are done, though some are being put off until next year. Officials estimate at least $1 million will have to be spent on the unexpected problems, including the shutdown and lane closures at the foot of the Zakim Bridge, where a 600-foot section of roadway will be repaired later this month.

This harkens back to all the problems of the Big Dig, from falling ceiling tiles to underground leaks, but the current mess may sound more familiar because of the substance of the issue: concrete. Bechtel/Parsons managers chose to use concrete because of its purported durability on steep slopes, but that has been shown to be more effective in warmer climates than the freeze-thaw conditions in New England.

One would think history would provide a lesson here. One would be wrong. Most recently, the MassDOT board had to approve nearly $100 million for the MBTA, which was the focus of a CommonWealth investigation, to replace defective concrete ties along the Old Colony Commuter Rail line. The ties were touted as having a lifespan of 50 years yet less than 10 years later, they were ripped up and replaced with old-fashioned wooden ties. Just a few years before agreeing to use the concrete ties, the MBTA had settled a suit against another concrete manufacturer for defective ties along other stretches of T tracks. T officials had vowed never to use concrete again until the issues with the mix were settled. They’ve now made a revow to that effect.

There was some history for the road engineers to study as well but the lessons were either ignored or never learned. When Interstate-495 was first built, it terminated at I-95. The final 10 miles of the north and south stretches from Franklin to Foxboro were paved with concrete slabs, the idea being that concrete had a longer life and more durability than traditional asphalt. The concrete’s lack of elasticity, an inability to withstand the freeze-thaw cycles, and heavier traffic after the road was finally opened and extended to the Cape caused crumbling sections and sharp potholes, and eventually pushed transportation officials to replace the concrete with asphalt.

There’s also some serious problems around the state with concrete bridge supports chipping and crumbling along the state’ highways, adding even more costs to an already overburdened maintenance budget, not to mention safety uncertainty.

Until global warming takes a firm foothold, it’s a pretty good bet that the use of concrete in the frigid northeast will not be warmly embraced.

                                                                                                                                                    –JACK SULLIVAN


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