Official who will oversee work was let go in Boston

J. Richard Capka, the federal highway administrator, was forced out in Massachusetts over the "Big Dig."

The federal highway official responsible for the rebuilding of the collapsed Interstate 35W bridge was dismissed in 2002 as chief executive of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority after his leadership of Boston's controversial "Big Dig" tunnel project came under fire.

J. Richard Capka, the nation's federal highway administrator and a retired brigadier general in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, arrived in the Twin Cities on Monday night in preparation for the first public meeting today on the design and construction of the new bridge. Gov. Tim Pawlenty and state transportation officials say they are determined to complete the project by the end of 2008.

Capka, who last week viewed recovery operations in the bridge collapse, said in an interview that his short tenure with the Turnpike Authority ended with his putting together a Big Dig financial plan that held steady for the first time in the project's history. Capka's spokesman, Doug Hecox, said Capka was chosen to oversee the federal recovery and rebuilding effort in Minneapolis in part because he successfully handled transportation issues in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and played a key role in the 1997 federal disaster response to the California floods.

A graduate of West Point, Capka also oversaw an $8 billion Florida Everglades restoration.

"This is not the first crisis he's been in the middle of and helped to kind of bring a little order to the chaos," Hecox said.

A stormy tenure in Boston

But Capka's role with the $14.6 billion Big Dig project has twice drawn criticism from U.S. Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, who briefly blocked Capka's approval as federal highway administrator.

Capka headed the Big Dig, the nation's largest construction project, from 2000 to 2002. His dismissal came about seven months after he received criticism for approving lucrative six-month severance agreements for three attorneys on the project's payroll. Capka told the Boston Globe newspaper that his decision to sign the severance packages without a vote by the Turnpike Authority's board was "ill-advised."

But in an interview Monday, he said he regrets characterizing it that way. In retrospect, Capka said, his approval of the severance packages was legal and appropriate. His action drew negative publicity after the Massachusetts Port Authority gave "significant" severance payments to officials associated with the authority's Logan International Airport, where terrorists boarded two planes used in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"The timing was absolutely awful," Capka said.

According to Globe reports, Capka left the Turnpike Authority with his own severance payment of $82,500. While the newspaper called his departure a "dismissal," Capka said it was the result of the authority's board voting 2-1 to eliminate his position to avoid redundancy. Prior to the vote, the board's chairman -- newly appointed by the governor -- had taken on some chief executive responsibilities.

Another battle with Kerry

Two months after his dismissal, he was appointed the Federal Highway Administration's deputy administrator. But when President Bush nominated Capka last year to lead the agency, Kerry put the process on hold.

Kerry initially blamed Capka for some of the $1.4 billion in cost overruns on the Big Dig project and called him a symbol of the Bush administration's "incompetence" in running federal agencies.

But Kerry lifted his hold on Capka's nomination after what he described as a "very candid" conversation with the candidate about his record as chief executive at the Turnpike Authority.

"I'm confident that he understands that Congress expects aggressive oversight of highway projects to ensure that the government is as careful with taxpayers' money as they are with their own," Kerry said at the time.

In an e-mail Monday to the Star Tribune, Kerry said, "I expect DOT to make the I-35W bridge its highest priority, and we will be watching every step of the way."

Capka said he was "personally affronted" by Kerry's attack. But he said their face-to-face meeting cleared the air and they remain cordial.

Hecox said Capka is committed to cutting any possible red tape to expedite the bridge reconstruction. "We're not going to speed it along any faster than we are allowed to, but it's the kind of thing that we're just not willing to let the process drag on," Hecox said.

In July 2006, four years after Capka lost his job at the Turnpike Authority, 26 tons of concrete and steel fell from the roof of one of the Big Dig's tunnels, killing a 38-year-old woman. As federal highway administrator, Capka became involved in the investigation of the fatal accident.

Once again, Kerry intervened. He said Capka's involvement potentially jeopardized the impartiality of the investigation. Capka bowed to the pressure and recused himself from the probe.

"It may be a while before the people of Massachusetts feel complete confidence about their safety again, but the wrong way to start rebuilding their trust is not to have the same officials investigate the failure as those who may have helped create the problem in the first place," Kerry said last year in a news release.

Hecox said Capka recused himself from the investigation "because it was the right thing to do," not because Kerry made the request.

"Presidential campaigns will make some people say just about anything," Hecox said.

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