The hazing of Frank DePaola

“Thank you, sir, may I have another?” That is the infamous response from a pledge to the Omega fraternity in the movie Animal House as he gets whacked repeatedly with a paddle by a sadistic senior member of the frat house.

But it also could be what state Highway Administrator Frank DePaola uttered under his breath when he was tapped by the Department of Transportation board of directors to be the new interim general manager of the beleaguered MBTA. It’s just the latest full travel sickness bag DePaola has been handed and asked to dispose of.

DePaola, an engineer by education and training, has been tossed into the breach several times over the last five years on a variety of transportation nightmares. Some he’s cleaned up, others he’s just held the line on, and in one case he created his own stink pile before reversing himself.

Back in 2011, the MBTA had to rip up all the concrete ties along the two Old Colony commuter rail lines because they were breaking and crumbling long before they were supposed to. They were replaced with time-honored wooden ties. It cost the transit authority more than $91 million to rip up both lines, a cost borne almost solely by the agency and taxpayers.

The manufacturer resisted paying for the replacements and the T ended up settling with them for just $6 million in cash and IOUs. DePaola, only a couple years on the job as assistant general manager for design and construction at the MBTA, was given the unenviable task of explaining to legislators why the ties had to be replaced.

When DePaola moved over to the Highway Department when Rich Davey became transportation secretary, the affable engineer had the dirty job of telling community meetings why Band-Aids were often being used in infrastructure repair because of a lack of money from Beacon Hill. If the meetings weren’t exactly a “kill the messenger” forum, there certainly was a “let’s beat this guy up because he’s here” tone to them.

When Davey left last fall, then-Gov. Deval Patrick appointed DePaola as acting secretary to handle the transition to the new administration. But Patrick and the Legislature also handed him a watered-down transportation bond bill that was even further gutted when voters rejected the gas tax indexing meant to create a stable revenue stream for transportation.

But DePaola was not without some problems of his own making. Last summer, state engineers from around New England determined a new asphalt additive that contained recycled engine oil was causing problems with paving, especially in cold climates, and reached a consensus to ban the product until more testing could be done. DePaola overruled his own engineers when the supplier sued the state. He ordered that MassDOT – and all cities and towns that receive state transportation money – use the controversial product.

Before the end of the paving season, however, problems erupted with new pavement on state highways and he quickly reversed himself, issuing a ban on any asphalt with recycled engine oil. But that was only after millions of tons of asphalt were laid down containing the additive. After the harsh winter abates, we’ll see what kind of shape the state’s highways and municipal roads are in and what the cost will be to repair whatever damage might be there.

On DePaola’s immediate agenda are getting the decaying MBTA system back up to a semblance of usefulness in bad weather and dealing with Keolis, the commuter rail operator that just reportedly fired its general manager because of the system’s poor performance. If DePaola makes sure things don’t all go to heck until a new permanent chief takes over, it will be a job well done.



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