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Bertha and Beyond

February 18, 2015

Updated 2/25/15 with response by SDOT (see bottom of page)

The state's $2 billion tunnel project to replace the aging SR 99 viaduct is stalled until the world's largest boring machine--Bertha--can be rescued and repaired. With some people crying "boondoggle" and calling for "Plan B," is the courtroom the only sure destination for this project?      

We all know the story by now.

In July 2013, contractors working for the Washington Dept. of Transportation began digging a 2-mile tunnel to replace the aging SR 99 Alaska Way viaduct. The largest diameter tunnel boring machine in the world, nicknamed Bertha, churned through nearly 1,000 feet of soil.

Then, in December 2013, Bertha got stuck. 

Workers pour concrete at the tunnel’s south portal less than 1000 feet from where Bertha has been sitting since December 2013.  (Credit: WSDOT)

Some of the world’s foremost engineers are now in the middle of a delicate repair operation to get Bertha – and the city’s transportation plans – moving again. Washington Tunnel Partners says the tunnel’s opening is now two years behind schedule. Meanwhile, Seattle, and the entire state, watches and waits.

The project to replace the viaduct has been spurred on by an almost unprecedented combination of pressures, not the least of which is Mother Nature.

The 2001 Nisqually earthquake weakened the double-decker viaduct and set off alarms bells about its safety and a timetable for its replacement. If indeed Seattle is due for the stronger earthquake that many experts predict, the viaduct isn’t the road one would want to be on.

WWU professor and seismic expert Scott Miles has been a long-time advocate for closing the viaduct.

The viaduct was reinforced to last until its demolition, but according to Scott Miles of Western Washington’s Resilience Institute, the temporary fixes are already well past their intended lifespan.

“No matter what eventually we’re going to lose the viaduct, but there’s a huge difference about how we lose it. Whether we’re prepared for it, whether we have time to adapt, whether we have time to try new approaches for dealing without it -- when the earthquake happens we won’t have those kinds of choices.”

For Miles, leaving the viaduct open until the tunnel is finished is a dangerous game that could lead to long term destabilization of the city. To make matters worse, the digging of a giant pit to reach Bertha appears to have affected groundwater pressures around the viaduct area, possibly causing the structure to sag.

So it’s a race against time and nature, with both the viaduct and Bertha not good at races.

Alongside the viaduct, massive 2,000-ton cranes are in position to raise Bertha’s damaged cutting head to the surface for repairs.

In the halls of city government, some officials echo Miles’ concerns. Councilmember Mike O’Brien was the only dissenting voice when the tunnel project was approved by the Seattle City Council in 2011.

“Replacing the viaduct with the largest-ever deep bore tunnel in the world is historic proportionally, and there’s a lot of pressure and it’s very high stakes decision. While as an elected city official I don’t have direct access to the contractor, I do have a responsibility to the people of Seattle to make sure that they’re safety is protected.” 

At a Seattle City Council meeting in January, WSDOT representatives present project updates and safety explanations to increasingly concerned Councilmembers.

In January, the city announced it would be making its own assessment of the dangers posed to the viaduct.

Adds O’Brien, “One of my big concerns is that the pressure on people making decisions is so great that they may make decisions that are not in our public’s best interest. History is rife with examples in which people knew something bad was going on but nobody did anything about it.  And I don’t want that to repeat here on our waterfront.”

While the Bertha rescue operation slowly progresses, crews at the northern end of the tunnel near Seattle Center work diligently to prepare the site where Bertha is planned to one day surface.  There are many associated projects within the SR 99 construction program; the bored tunnel is the colossal centerpiece, but everything else will be done and ready when Bertha finishes her job.

WSDOT Deputy Administrator Matt Preedy looks out at the 80-foot wide concrete wall at the SR99 Tunnel’s north end, where current plans call for Bertha to emerge from the ground in 2017.

At the helm is Matt Preedy, Deputy Administrator of the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Program.

“By the time that machine is fixed, that boring is completed, it comes out the north end, all this work on the north end will be done and ready, the work on the south end will be done and ready, so that we can commission this corridor, get it open as quickly as we can.” 

To those who believe Bertha is a bust and the tunnel project is a boondoggle, Preedy has one response.

“To start over with a whole new option would take decades.  This is the best option.  This is the option that will ensure public safety as rapidly as we can deliver it.”

With Bertha in a coma, some doubters in the state legislature introduced bills to stop the project.  They were quickly shot down, but one probable destination is the court room.

With this kind of “design-build” job, the contractor assumes more responsibility and risk.

But that doesn’t let the state off the hook.  (Seattle taxpayers once worried that giant cost overruns would slide towards them, but a 2010 opinion issued by then-Attorney General Rob McKenna stated that such a liability was unenforceable.)  

Prominent construction attorney John Ahlers has been watching the drama unfold with a unique perspective.

Construction attorney Joh Ahlers says that any prediction about public money going to pay for the tunnel is "pure speculation."

“The issue’s going to be: was there or was there not what’s called a quote ‘differing site condition.’ was there something in the baseline geotechnical report that turned out to be different than what was actually encountered.”

Ahlers says, “At this point to predict that any public money would have to be diverted to this project because of what has occurred is just pure speculation because the root cause of whatever happened to the tunnel boring machine hasn’t been determined yet. 

At ground level back at Pioneer Square, business owners are already dealing with the cost of Bertha’s rescue.  Bookseller Phil Bevis of Arundel Books holds a rare book covered in mold.  He discovered moisture issues throughout the building, forcing him to move.

Moisture issues related to ground settlement in Pioneer Square have forced Phil Bevis, longtime owner of Arundel Books, to move his store to higher ground.

“It changed the water table and that caused some moisture wicking issues.  If we didn’t have books shelved all the way around it would evaporate, but because of the kind of business that we have, we absolutely have to move.  And we’re talking somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 tons.  By the time we’re done, it will probably have cost us the equivalent of 6 to 8 months sales.”

Directly across the street is the tunnel project’s award-winning information center, known as Milepost 31 for the spot where Bertha began her journey more than a year and a half ago.

Only time will tell if the real Bertha, lying in wait only a few hundred feet away, can be reawakened and finish what we started. The future of an entire region depends on her.

Watch Deborah Wang talk with Mayor Ed Murray about Bertha and whether there is a Plan B.

Update 2/25/15: IN Close corrected several factual errors in the web article, as pointed out by WSDOT.  We regret the errors.

WSDOT Alaska Way Viaduct Media Relations Manager Laura Newborn responds, regarding the safety of the existing viaduct:

There are frequent inspections of the viaduct and repairs made to make sure it remains safe for drivers, yet instead, by not seeking another point of view, I believe you created a picture that implies the road is unsafe. Here is a link to more information about inspections and repairs:

Regarding councilmember Mike O'Brien's statements:

Again, letting this person speak without mentioning any safety measures WSDOT employs to keep the viaduct safe, implies that somehow, there is negligence that puts drivers at risk. This error of omission is of great concern as it is not a full picture. Safety is the #1 priority of WSDOT, which maintains the viaduct. This has been addressed with city council over and over again, and on December 15, 2014, Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson said the following:  “WSDOT has no other commitment than to holding people’s safety paramount as we do our daily work on every road and bridge and especially on this project.  As I said earlier, this is an important project in a difficult spot and in a tense moment in time of construction.  However, we will not place anything in the way of public safety." 

Regarding Phil Bevis' comments about water seepage:

How does Mr. Bevis know this was caused by Bertha? WSDOT cannot verify. FYI, WSDOT inspected the building shortly after learning of settlement in the vicinity of the access pit.  A side sewer clog led to backups in the building at that point in time, that were unrelated to settlement. Perhaps that was a cause of his problems?  In the video portion of the story that aired, Mr. Bevis said he was upset that he had not been notified. Shortly after settlement was noted around the access pit, WSDOT notified building managers and building owners in the area. WSDOT does not notify each individual tenant of a building. That is something we leave to building management.



Made possible in part by

Nils Cowan

A native of Calgary, Canada who cut his teeth in the documentary industry of Washington, D.C., Nils moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2009 after working on a National Park Service film about Mt. Rainier and falling in love with the area. He has been producing non-fiction content for thirteen years, from broadcast and independent documentaries to museum films and non-profit PSAs. One of his most recent films, 'Beyond the Visible’ which reveals the inner workings and transformational science of the Very Large Array Telescope in New Mexico, was just awarded the 2014 Cine Golden Eagle Award for non-fiction storytelling.  Nils lives in Seattle with his wife and two kids.

More stories by Nils Cowan

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I really hope they get this running soon!