Special Report

The Melina Del Valle Tunnel

If Boston's Big Dig connector tunnel is ever repaired, it surely will require a new name.

By 7.24.06

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After Boston's I-90 connector tunnel is fixed, if it is fixed, Massachusetts Turnpike Authority officials surely will hold a grand reopening ceremony. When they do, the tunnel should have a new name: The Melina Del Valle Memorial Tunnel. Melina Del Valle, 38, was killed two weeks ago when several tons of ceiling tiles fell on her car as she and her husband drove through a tunnel in Boston's $14.6 billion Big Dig, the most expensive highway project in American history.

I know, naming a highway tunnel after someone who died in it is highly improbable, for many reasons.

For one, the government wants people to use the tunnel. That's why it is there. Reminding people that it was the scene of a horrible death -- in fact, the cause of that death -- is terrible marketing. We see the name "Ted Williams," as in Boston's Ted Williams Tunnel, and we think happy thoughts. We see the name "Melina Del Valle" and we might recall her tragic accident and vow never to use the tunnels again.

More importantly, politicians never remind the public of their past failures. Government wants to inspire confidence in itself. Naming the tunnel after the woman who died there because of government incompetence will be a constant reminder that MTA officials failed to protect the public and then lied about it ("The tunnels are safe"). Which is exactly why the tunnel should be named for Del Valle.

Melina Del Valle was a victim of a crime aided and abetted by her own government. No matter how the initial flaw that caused the roof collapse came to be, the MTA bore ultimate responsibility for inspecting the work and certifying that the tunnel was safe. That is why the public trusted the tunnels.

Without the MTA's seal of approval, how many would have ventured into the Big Dig tunnels? Who would have put their lives in the hands of the contractors alone? It was trust in the MTA's inspection and certification process that made people feel safe entering the tunnels. Contractors might cut corners, but the MTA represents the people of Massachusetts. With its engineers checking every inch of the project for problems, the tunnels had to be safe.

Or so the theory goes. But the MTA let the people down. Its officials learned about problems, but each time decided that keeping the public confident in the project was more important than keeping the public safe. Even after Melina Del Valle died, MTA Chairman Matt Amorello absurdly claimed that the tunnels were safe. He did not know this, but he asserted it anyway. Turns out he was dead wrong. The tiles that fell on Valle's car were hung by bolts and epoxy. After the accident, more than 1,000 of the bolts were found to be weak. Yet Amorello had just proclaimed the tunnels safe. It is astonishing to consider that had Gov. Mitt Romney not taken over the investigation, the fallen panels might have been replaced and the tunnels quickly reopened. That seems to be the direction Amorello was headed. We might not have learned the extent of the ceiling panel problem until the tunnel claimed more lives.

Naming the I-90 connector tunnel after Melina Del Valle would be more than an appropriate memorial to this innocent victim who died because she trusted the government to do its job. It would let her forever be a reminder of how much we risk when we take the government's word on faith. By memorializing her in this way, her death might help save others from the same fate.

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About the Author

Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @Drewhampshire.