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Boston parking garage collapse highlights need for ongoing infrastructural initiatives

(Photo courtesy of Live Boston 617) The collapse of the Boston Government Center parking garage highlights the need for infrastructural initiatives to continue to prioritize human safety over development. 

Harrison Lee
Connector Editor

On March 26, a large portion of Boston’s Government Center parking garage collapsed, resulting in the fatality of Peter Monsini. In the wake of Monsini’s death, the City of Boston has continued to investigate the accident leading to the construction worker’s death. However, many are still questioning how the accident happened and the dangerous likelihood of such an accident occurring again based on the practices of construction and demolition of Boston’s infrastructure.

According to UMass Lowell’s Dr. TzuYang Yu, much of the speculated damage cannot be accounted for without understanding several components in infrastructure development. Yu, a Civil Engineering professor, explained the differences between the design and construction phases of development and how “miscommunication between designers and construction contractors can occur from overloading.” Dr. Yu explained that with the heavy use of concrete in construction projects such as the parking garage, many temporary supports are used in the skeletal phase of the building process “Concrete is like a super baby,” Yu said. “It grows up fast [and] construction could have removed [this] temporary support before it was ready.”

This overloading is related to one of Dr. Yu’s other theories regarding the cause of the collapse and how dynamic loading could have also played a role in the contractor’s efforts to stay on schedule at the expense of quality solidification. The case of a vibrating jackhammer is a simple example of how moving quickly to another task before the concrete has completely settled can disrupt the long-term stability. “Winter time doesn’t usually [permit the] cast of concrete,” Yu said. Thus, dynamic loading can certainly contribute to factors leading up to the accident.

Dr. Yu has also been a supporter and lead developer in solutions to prevent accidents, such as the parking garage, using sensors known as early warning systems. Unfortunately, many contractors and construction companies do not use these systems, and this is not a financial concern, but rather an uncertainty that comes with placing the sensors in the right places from the start.

One may wonder about the possibility of shifting focus from restoring and preserving infrastructure to building new structures. But this also comes with its own comprehensiveness. In a city like Boston, there is much concern about balancing the preservation of historical sites with building new structures. The city’s goal is to “find a way to protect [these] historical sites until all possibilities are exhausted.” This would also appear to be a reflection of Boston’s values, but given the city’s circumstances, it also isn’t the easiest task to build up from scratch. The same could be said about many other cities that possess historic properties, including Lowell.

Unlike Boston’s parking garage, the ongoing infrastructure initiatives in Lowell pertain to the bridges that connect the city across the Merrimack River. Many of these bridges are aging rapidly, and there is a need to take action to prevent a dangerous accidents soon. “The bottom line is to protect human lives,” Dr. Yu said.

“When we design structures, there is a design philosophy: factor of safety.” By multiplying the original design by a certain capacity to anticipate ambient change, designers in departments such as Dr. Yu’s can increase the longevity of a bridge’s life span, which according to Yu, is often expected to last on average 75 years. However, he went on to say, “in civil engineering, we know that structures get old. What we don’t know is how quickly they age. The question we have to ask is, to what point does the city or federal government have to intervene, by restoring the steel, or building a new one?”

This returns to determining whether initiatives should restore infrastructure or scrap the current structure to replace it entirely. It has proven to be a difficult task in both directions, with restoration often resulting in bridge shutdowns that slow down and back up traffic. It also increases an environmental strain by lengthening the commute of commerce-carrying tractor-trailer trucks that commonly output diesel exhaust.

Overall, every city faces construction and updating to maintain the established infrastructure that makes places like Lowell and Boston cities. But through all of the factors attributed to the design and construction phases of developing infrastructure, it seems important that cities continue prioritizing the safety of human life during ongoing development to avoid another accident like the fatality at the Government Center’s parking garage in the future.

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