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    Bertha blockage mania

    There's lots of stuff beneath the Seattle waterfront. Shipwrecks, ancient boulders and bones and lots of water. Any - or none - of it could be getting in Big Bertha's way.
    The hole that Bertha built.

    The hole that Bertha built. WSDOT

    Theories abound about what's blocking Big Bertha, Seattle's tunnel boring machine, the world's largest at that.

    The tunneling action is underground, of course, but it's become a popular spectator sport, second only to the Seahawks in terms of national speculation. Big Bertha is blocked. Few were expecting that. A giant like Bertha, surely it could chew through anything.

    If I-told-you-sos were crows, they'd be lining the Alaskan Way Viaduct right now cawing and guffawing. Mike McGinn and consultants and tunnel opponents are delighting in Bertha's birth pains. Tunnel agnostics have joined the peanut gallery too, because for the first time in a long while there's interest in what lies beneath the city.

    Entrepreneur and author Bill Speidel managed to turn Pioneer Square's basements into a tourist attraction that continues to fascinate visitors. The Underground Tour hardly gives you entrance to a buried Pompeii, but the layers do tell an intriguing story of how Seattle rebuilt after the fire lifting ground floors up a story, how our sewer pipes were once made of wood and our toilets were turned into geysers by the incoming tide.

    The fascinating thing about whatever geological or archaeological thrombus is blocking Bertha is that the list of suspects is long.

    Bertha’s forward progress has been halted in the vicinity of once-upon-a-time Ballast Island, the site along the waterfront where cargo ships routinely dumped piles of rocks from their holds. In the olden days, Seattle had no respect for wetlands, so we filled them in — with anything. Vast stretches of the waterfront and SoDo are manmade with fill from various local regrades and sawmill tailings. And there's a lot of water down there too. (Some SoDo property owners can literally watch the tide go in and out of damp basements.) The tunnel builders are installing pumps and digging wells to keep Bertha from drowning. Maybe she needs a Captain Nemo to navigate the slurry.

    Seattleites also used Elliott Bay and the Duwamish tide flats as a garbage dump for many decades. They tossed stuff from ships and off the docks. Some early communities actually lived on docks over the water. When work was being done on the Starbucks headquarters, for example, they found evidence of the city's first Chinatown, which had been built on a pier.

    There's an old sailing ship, the Windward, buried somewhere near Western Ave. and the Colman Building. There could be other gear down there too: steam engines or wrecks. In the fast-growing city, no one kept strict track of the garbage or the fill or what either contained. The city simply left all the discarded stuff in place and sprouted up around all it.

    Certain people and projects have recently attempted to map the old shoreline. Author/geologist David Williams is working on a book about how the city reshaped its waterfronts and hills. It will no doubt be an epic story.

    The soundest Bertha theory, which Williams favors, is that the boring machine has run into a large boulder, possibly a glacial erratic left over from the last ice age, some 10,000 or more years ago. Such rocks are found here and there about the city, from Seward Park to Wedgwood. If it is a single object blocking Bertha, a massive glacier-deposited rock is the most likely suspect.

    But the layers below the manmade strata occasionally cough up plenty of alternative interesting stuff. Williams notes that the city's re-graders uncovered buried forests, bones and even a suspected meteorite.

    In the 1960s and '70s, major projects kept turning up mammoth, mastodon or sloth bones belonging to ancient visitors that moved in as the ice retreated. (For proof, visit The Burke Museum.) A giant ground sloth was found at the Sea-Tac airport, and prehistoric mammoth or mastodon bones turned up in digs at City Hall, the Library, I-5 and the Space Needle. Could Bertha have stumbled upon a giant prehistoric graveyard? Is a mammoth's molar big enough to stop a giant dental drill like Bertha?

    Speculation about Bertha has been rampant, which is interesting for a town that generally doesn't care much about historical archaeology. But as a new city whose past is close enough to touch, even remember, Seattle does love a good mystery. We want to have a past that surprises, that reaches out and trips us up like an old ghost. Gold Rush garbage or an old bootleggers stash: As the New York Times phrased it: "the unknown is a tantalizing subject."

    We're also a city suspicious of power — even Big Bertha's. The tunnel was controversial, the machine is huge, the engineers filled with confidence, the price tag mind-boggling (or boondoggling) at $3 billion plus. We're the town that shut down WTO, that put on a general strike, that likes to zig when others zag. We like a good story — or an Ivar's hoax. (The restaurant chain, by the way, thinks the blockage might be "Clamosaurus.")

    We enjoy a good surprise when it trips up anything that smacks of hubris. When you send the world's biggest tunnel boring machine on a one-way mission into Seattle's chaotic subterranean stew, the only thing that could go wrong are the people who say nothing can go wrong. So we wait.

    One of the most disappointing theories about Bertha's problems is that her stall might have to do with the power of water and pressure. You know, plain old physics and engineering stuff. What if the problem with Bertha is that she simply isn't up to the job?

    The battle over the waterfront options has been fierce. Mayor Mike McGinn arguably lost his job over the tunnel fight. Seattleites are still arguing over the various options: Viaduct retrofit, surface, cut-and-cover, deep bore. People still harrumpf about not passing mass transit in the '60s, or defeating the Commons in the 1990s or how the I-5 freeway should have been built with a lid. (I'll bet the average Crosscut reader even has an opinion on the Bogue Plan of 1911.)

    Certainly the mystery about what’s blocking Bertha is more entertaining than the debates that attended her birth. Our process being what it is, perhaps Bertha is merely acting out that common Seattle complaint: civic constipation.

    Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.

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    Posted Thu, Jan 2, 7:21 a.m. Inappropriate

    Parsons Brinckerhoff is responsible for convincing the government heads around here to engage in all the megaprojects they've begun over the past quarter-century, including this one:

    For the past 10 years, Parsons Brinckerhoff has served as general engineering consultant assisting the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) in developing alternatives to replace the seismically vulnerable Alaskan Way Viaduct, which runs 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) along the city's waterfront, serving 110,000 vehicles each day. The firm has been involved in virtually every aspect of the $3.1 billion Alaskan Way Viaduct and Seawall Replacement program, including conceptual design of a 2.7-kilometer (1.7-mile) tunnel to replace the viaduct.


    Ed Murray just hired Jared Smith from Parsons Brinckerhoff as a full-time assistant to advise him on the waterfront projects. There is no way Smith will give Murray or the public straight answers about his former employer's bad acts and omissions, who is responsible for problems, excess costs, or anything else of significance.

    Paula Hammond gave the green light to this SR-99 tunneling project when she was the head of WSDOT. As soon as Gregoire left office Hammond was hired by Parsons Brinckerhoff, and she now works out of its Seattle office. Hammond did not get that fat job because she had spent her time at WSDOT looking out for the public's interest.

    Parsons Brinckerhoff is in charge of the engineering WSDOT will rely on for converting the I-90 floating bridge to a “part-highway part-railway” structure for Sound Transit. Go ahead – try figuring out how that process is going.


    Posted Thu, Jan 2, 8:13 a.m. Inappropriate

    Once again Mr. Berger gets it right, and in an interesting way. I hadn't known that the tunnel's path was in a zone so saturated until reports of the volume they're pumping out became available. So, the tunnel, if it ever gets done, will actually be underwater, not just under unstable fill. Just another reason I will never use it.

    As I drove by the mess this morning I wondered how many people are being paid to do nothing since the machine stalled almost a month ago. Anyone know what we're wasting on that?

    Also, I take exception to calling this thing "Bertha." A female name for a machine that's acting in a much more "male" way, boring...Why not call it "Bubba" instead?

    Finally, can anyone say Brightwater? What happens if this machine becomes stuck as one of the tunneling machines did there? Will we get a "Bubba" to replace it?

    And thank you, crossrip, for informing us of the particulars of one of these incestuous relationships that we are wasting our money on.


    Posted Thu, Jan 2, 9:07 a.m. Inappropriate

    No, Knute did not "get it right," at least in some respects. To say that "Mayor Mike McGinn arguably lost his job over the tunnel fight" is complete distortion.

    Voters turned him out for many reasons, not the least of which were that he was arrogant, mean-spirited and believed himself to be all-knowing; he pushed his anti-car agenda to ridiculous lengths; and he conspired in secret on a public-funded arena playpen for billionaires that the majority of voters did not want (as polls repeatedly showed) and that would have severely comprised the industrial area and access to the largest port in the most trade-dependent state in the country.

    He lost because until just before the election he ignored the problems of street crime, drug-dealing, assault, aggressive panhandling and other downtown pollution until a bus driver was shot and other people were stabbed, beaten and robbed. And on and on. His back-and-forth political grandstanding on the tunnel was a sideshow compared to the serious city issues he ignored or fumbled.

    Posted Thu, Jan 2, 2:54 p.m. Inappropriate

    Agreed. I didn't even really register that part of the article; I don't care why he's gone, only that the replacement be better as I define "better."


    Posted Thu, Jan 2, 9:55 a.m. Inappropriate

    What all the above said. And Parsons should stick to engineering, instead of setting/encouraging bad public policy.

    But, any work, even when it REDUCES mobility by making new roads with fewer lanes is good for them, and Ms. Hammond.


    Posted Thu, Jan 2, 10:57 a.m. Inappropriate

    It will be interesting to see how the movers and shakers, and stakeholders and political retreads and PR spinners who are responsible for this comedy will portray themselves in these new “Tales of Bertha and Her Very Bad Day(s).”

    And even if the Discovery institute could have gotten the almighty to just dig the tunnel with a snap of his finger, instead of promoting Bertha, the result would still be a huge loss of capacity and access of the 99 corridor through downtown.


    Posted Thu, Jan 2, 11:17 a.m. Inappropriate

    Certainly, it is way to early to write off this massive project, but these early 'bumps along the way' are and should be a cause for concern. Perhaps, at this time, it wouldn't be too premature to ask: Is there a Plan B?

    Posted Thu, Jan 2, 12:45 p.m. Inappropriate

    And I still hear from some engineers who studied it that the real problem with the viaduct is the seawall. Of course they are the 'little people', not Parsons. Time for Plan B -- fix the seawall, keep the viaduct, and call it done.

    Posted Thu, Jan 2, 12:47 p.m. Inappropriate

    Bury her in place and try Plan B. Oh. I bet there isn't a Plan B or C or D.

    The entire concept was suspect to begin and the longer Bertha is at a standstill just reinforces the obvious.

    I'm starting to think of Bertha as Seattle's answer to the Twin Towers of Satsop.


    Posted Thu, Jan 2, 2:03 p.m. Inappropriate

    Correction: The Bogue Plan was drawn up in 1911 and voted down in 1912, not 1928. My goof.

    Arthurking: Thanks for making my point that the role of the tunnel in McGinn's loss was "arguable." Still, many attribute his loss of popularity due to his flip-flop-flip on the tunnel and his being on the losing end of the public vote on the project.

    Posted Thu, Jan 2, 6:33 p.m. Inappropriate

    Thanks Knute for bringing up Sandi Doughton's new book (some posts back). I just finished it. Bertha is but small potatoes!


    Posted Thu, Jan 2, 10:31 p.m. Inappropriate

    "Mike McGinn and consultants and tunnel opponents are delighting in Bertha's birth pains."

    You state the delight as fact. Do you have facts?
    Or is it mere surmise?

    Posted Fri, Jan 3, 3:06 a.m. Inappropriate

    David: I am painting with a broad brush, but it's based on conversations, including one with the now-former mayor, and observation and, yes, surmise. I think it's human nature to feel that one had been validated by events.

    Posted Fri, Jan 3, 10:29 a.m. Inappropriate

    As someone who owns property in Seattle, I'm curious as to what parties are responsible for paying the cost overruns on the Bertha Stall-Out: The State of Washington in general or just the citizens of Seattle? It seems to me there was a contract clause that said the citizens of Seattle would be on the hook for cost overruns. I believe the former mayor asked that that clause be removed but I don't know if it was or not. Anybody know the outcome re: the clause?

    Ramblin Jack

    Posted Fri, Jan 3, 10:55 a.m. Inappropriate

    Hi Jack.

    There's no “contract clause” relating to who would pay cost overruns on the SR-99 AWV replacement tunnel project.

    There is however a state statute that limits how much the state would have to pay toward the Seattle waterfront-area roads projects. Maybe that's what you're thinking about?

    The first thing to keep in mind is the spending WSDOT will be doing in and around SR-99 in Seattle includes, but is not limited to, the tunneling project. Other related projects WSDOT is doing include the Spokane Street Viaduct widening, SR 519 Phase 2, the S. Holgate to King Street work, Mercer West, demolition of the exiting viaduct, and rebuilding the surface Alaskan Way. Most of those are well underway.

    Here's the thing to keep in mind about those WSDOT projects. The state legislature in 2009 came up with a very interesting payment scheme, and set it into a statute. WSDOT has full authority to spend however much it wants on all 11 (or so) of these projects, but all amounts over $2.8 billion that the state racks up are to be paid by others. Who those others would be (if such additional funding becomes needed) remains unclear.

    Here's a bit more about that unique statute (technically it was a rider sponsored by Judy Clibborn to ESSB 5768, at the behest of Frank Chopp). Months after all the hearings on ESSB 5768, Clibborn's rider with its cost-shifting provisions was introduced (on April 22, 2009):


    Here is that law, as enacted; ESSB 5768 is codified as RCW 47.01.402(6)(b):

    ( http://www.apps.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=47.01.402 ).

    The way that state law is set up to operate is that now all of WSDOT’s expenses over the $2.8 billion cap could be covered by annual LID assessments on an as-yet undefined set of Seattle property owners. That's the kind of financing plan referenced in the Clibborn rider. Those LID assessments would go out tacked onto the property tax bills, twice a year.

    Given that WSDOT’s costs are going to be incurred in connection with an expanding set of projects (the tunnel, the work in SLU near Mercer St. and Aurora, the work in SODO around Alaskan Way, removal of the viaduct, etc.) there is a huge potential for contract overruns, mitigation costs, and damages to buildings and infrastructure. That’s much more true now than before, as the boring machine is stuck and two years ago WSDOT handed out expensive “sweeteners” to contract bidders that reduced further the amount available under the spending cap available for the rest of the work.

    A local government with LID-forming authority could form a LID for the purposes of paying the amounts over $2.8 billion that WSDOT racks up. No vote of the people would be required, and no change in state law would need to be made. The Port of Seattle could use its existing statutory authority (RCW 53.08.050) to form a new LID and begin the assessments as soon as WSDOT says it’ll need additional money beyond the $2.8 billion cap. Those assessments would start going out to hundreds of property owners, the ones that Lloyd Hara deems have properties that have increased assessed values due to the projects.

    Is your property near the downtown project sites, Jack? If so, the King County Assessor could start hitting you up with LID assessments if WSDOT plans on exceeding its $2.8 billion spending cap and your property is benefited by any of those 11 (or so) projects.


    Posted Fri, Jan 3, 3:10 p.m. Inappropriate

    Wow. Bertha Blockage apparently solved: One of WSDOT's own pipes. The answer appears to be more mundane and more embarrassing than anyone imagined.


    Posted Fri, Jan 3, 3:13 p.m. Inappropriate

    From WSDOT:
    "This inspection showed an 8-inch-diameter steel pipe protruding through one of the many openings in the cutterhead. We believe the steel pipe is a well casing installed by WSDOT in 2002 after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake to better understand how groundwater flows through this area. The location of this pipe was included in reference materials in the contract.

    "We also believe at least some of the obstructions found by the exploratory holes are pieces of the 2002 steel pipe, which could be a contributing factor in the delay of boring.

    "Other potential factors include changing soil conditions that may have caused excessive wear of cutting tools, potential objects in front of the cutterhead or objects in the lower portion of the excavation chamber that still aren’t visible"


    Posted Sat, Jan 4, 8:40 a.m. Inappropriate

    "Quality journalism" is a stretch when you make the inflammatory statement that "If I-told-you-sos were crows, they'd be lining the Alaskan Way Viaduct right now cawing and guffawing. Mike McGinn and consultants and tunnel opponents are delighting in Bertha's birth pains." If you want to be dramatic, you might as well indicate that tunnel opponents are rather more sickened than delighted.


    Posted Sat, Jan 4, 1:32 p.m. Inappropriate

    Sue, I am both sickened by this costly mistake (yes, it is a MISTAKE) and I am delighted that it has happened.

    It is NOT too late to stop the bore tunnel and build a new seawall and viaduct. We can afford those options.

    We cannot continue to afford DOT's constant $$$$$$$$$$$ mistakes.

    Posted Sat, Jan 4, 5:34 p.m. Inappropriate


    I agree that it would be reasonable to acknowledge that "…it's human nature to feel that one had been validated by events."

    So saying something like "It is possible that the former Mayor might have a certain grim satisfaction at being able to say that he advised against the tunnel…etc etc"

    But I don't think that it is good journalism and basic fairness to state unequivocally, as a fact, that the McGinn was "delighted."

    I emphasis my criticism precisely because I have grown to admire your even-handed commentary (while still having a real POV) on Steve Scher's show on KUOW. I expect to hear _your_ opinion but not to put another's words in his/her mouth.

    OK. Enough said by me. :) Onward to the bizarre and grimly humorous 8' pipe from 2002. The real issue is "How did this happen? Who is responsible? Who will pay?" One assumes that in reality it will be the tax-payers but it would also be nice to know who really should pay.

    Posted Sat, Jan 4, 6:39 p.m. Inappropriate

    Who is responsible? Who will pay?" One assumes that in reality it will be the tax-payers but it would also be nice to know who really should pay.


    You seem to suffer from an all-too-common deficit: the inability to comprehend government-speak.

    Take a look again at that webpage that Knute cites above. Part of what it says is this: "The location of this pipe was included in reference materials in the contract." That tells EXACTLY who will pay (or, at least, who WSDOT thinks should pay).

    The contract between WSDOT and the tunneling contractor provides that WSDOT is responsible for additional costs relating to unknown underground conditions. IF this pipe is the cause of the problem, then the contractor is responsible for any delays and additional costs, as it can not claim that the pipe was unknown to it.

    Make sense? It's a basic contract law "allocation of risk" issue. There really is no other reason for WSDOT to be so insistent now that it disclosed the existence of this pipe to the tunneling contractor.


    Posted Mon, Jan 6, 10:29 a.m. Inappropriate

    Agreed. The information was in the bid package so guess what contractor - you are liable.

    That said - having been in arguments too many times in the on-site construction trailer contractors are notorious for trying to weasel out of such responsibility, or if this isn't successful, then pecking away and adding other costs over the life of the project to make up for it.


    Posted Mon, Jan 6, 5:13 p.m. Inappropriate

    The bid package did not say the pipe was left behind.

    Posted Tue, Jan 7, 8:02 a.m. Inappropriate

    Well that's what WSDOT is claiming - that information given to the contractors when they sent out the RFP - yes?


    Posted Tue, Jan 7, 8:08 a.m. Inappropriate

    Apparently so - from Seattle Times:
    The 2002 well site was listed in reference materials provided to construction bidders, as part of the contract specifications.


    Posted Mon, Jan 6, 6:07 p.m. Inappropriate

    Roads are "retro"?

    At least they get used by the taxpayers. An inexcusable amount of $$ is spent in this state on 'transit' projects (I'm talkin' about YOU, Soundtransit) that a tiny fraction of the people use. That's the questionable spending; roads, on the other hand, are popular.
    Deal with it.


    Posted Tue, Jan 7, 5 p.m. Inappropriate

    The well site was listed, but not that the well casing wasn't removed, something they should have mentioned.

    From a Seattle Times article, the following:
    "However, Chris Dixon, STP’s project director, said the builders presumed it had been removed.

    “If we had known the pipe was there, we would have removed it,” he said.

    Dixon mentioned that Ecology Department rules require well casings to be removed after use.


    Posted Tue, Jan 7, 9:25 p.m. Inappropriate

    "Presumed" removed. The bid package did not say this, it merely laid out the location of the well. There are two plausible explanations - contractor overlooked it when they had a chance to ask questions during the RFP clarification process and/or the decided to ignore it purposely.

    If you have any experience in construction bid processes (which you apparently don't by mistakenly claiming this info wasn't in the package) one would know how this works - all existing info is provided in plan and profiles and you as a bidder get to lay out your approach and assumptions and ask questions to help build your bid.

    This contractor never asked about the well casing nor did they put an assumption in their bid that they would need to address this. Contractors are very wily and I'm sure this one will negotiate a reasonable shared responsibility.

    They usually include some vaguely crafted escape clauses that barely guarantee they can find their own parked truck at the end of the day.


    Posted Tue, Jan 7, 5:02 p.m. Inappropriate

    Got your BOO BOO on? Big boo boos on this project. What are we? Already $100 million over budget?

    Enough to totally end homelessness in Seattle. Guess that's not a goal.

    Posted Wed, Jan 8, 7:14 a.m. Inappropriate

    Seattle used to be a competently run city, and our public works projects were reasonably on time and reasonably within budget. We had good roads, also. We now contract everything out, so we have horrendously expensive, poorly planned projects, and roads that seem as if they are out of some "Mad Max" movie.


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