‘70s scandal haunts efforts to fix UMass garage
On Dec. 22, 1969, a New York construction management firm named McKee-Berger-Mansueto was officially designated as project manager for construction of a new Dorchester campus that was to become the University of Massachusetts Boston.
According to a special state commission set up later to investigate corruption and shoddy workmanship associated with that project and others, the selection of MBM “was made directly by Administration and Finance Commissioner Donald R. Dwight” — an appointee of then-governor Francis W. Sargent. In a scathing report that fills nine volumes and was issued Dec. 31, 1980, the special commission, headed by Amherst College president John Ward, found that bribery, extortion, and political favoritism were a normal part of doing business in Massachusetts, under both Democrats and Republicans.
Two state senators were convicted and jailed for accepting cash payoffs connected to the UMass Boston project. And, in the aftermath of scandal, the state contracting system was reformed. But no one in the executive branch — which was responsible for selecting the UMass Boston project manager — was ever held accountable for any corruption that happened on their watch. Dwight refused to testify before the Ward Commission and even fled the state to avoid it. Sargent said he couldn’t remember any discussions involving MBM.
This would be ancient Massachusetts history except for the costly reminder that links the past to the present: the crumbling parking garage that still sprawls beneath the campus at UMass Boston. Over decades, the low quality cement used to build it disintegrated, exposing steel rods to salty ocean air and further weakening the structure. For safety reasons, the garage was shut down in 2006. No one fixed it because no one wanted to pay for it. The cost of demolishing the garage, along with several attached buildings, is now expected to reach at least $150 million, according to a report by the Globe’s Laura Krantz.
The administration of Governor Charlie Baker recently announced that it is putting $78 million towards demolishing the garage. That’s a welcome and significant commitment. Still, the arguing continues over responsibility for the remainder of the cost.
Obviously, Baker did not create the problem. It’s a dark legacy from the 1970s. But the state was put on notice about the extent of the engineering and construction problems the moment the Ward Commission issued its report. For decades, governors looked the other way as the underground garage fell apart. In recent years, UMass Boston moved forward with an ambitious expansion plan, building a new campus center, along with new labs, classrooms, and a first-ever dorm — like a homeowner adding fancy new additions without fixing the foundation.
All that capital spending strained the budget. That, in turn, has led to tension between UMass Boston and the central UMass administration and ultimately to the resignation of longtime chancellor Keith Motley. When it comes to the garage, the central UMass office has been saying that UMass Boston should foot the bill. UMass Boston insists that the state, through an entity called the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, should pay. It should.
There was a moral responsibility on Jan. 1, 1981 — the day after the Ward Commission report was filed — for the state to come up with a plan to fix the disaster it created at UMass Boston. It’s long past time for a governor of Massachusetts to step up to it.