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Steel pipe blamed in Bertha blockage but more uncertainties could be ahead

Officials aren't saying how the tunnel blockage could effect the project's costs and schedule.
An image of the steel pipe that could be causing problems for Bertha.

An image of the steel pipe that could be causing problems for Bertha. Photo: WSDOT

An abandoned well pipe is likely blocking the tunnel-boring machine beneath Seattle's waterfront. The Washington State Department of Transportation, the agency overseeing the State Route 99 tunnel project, had the pipe placed in the ground back in 2002. 

A WSDOT contractor installed the 8-inch diameter, 119-foot long steel pipe to conduct a test on the Alaskan Way Viaduct, following the Nisqually earthquake. The location of the well site was included in planning documents for the tunnel. Chris Dixon, a project manager for Seattle Tunnel Partners, said the tunneling contractor had assumed the pipe was removed when the well was decommissioned. He and a WSDOT representative would not comment on who was responsible for the pipe's removal.

Seattle Tunnel Partners and WSDOT, Dixon said, are “looking at the documents” to see if there might be any other pipes in the machine's path.

“What we’re faced with right now is a cutter head that needs more cutting tools replaced before we can mine forward,” Dixon said. “We need to remove whatever pieces of pipe or steel are out in front of the machine at this time.”

The cutting tools are designed to be replaced over the course of the project, but they are only intended to cut through soft material and are showing signs of unusual wear and tear. Dixon could not say if the pipe had damaged any other part of the machine, commonly called "Bertha." All but 15 feet of the machine's 57-foot "cutter head" is currently under water. There is a considerable amount of groundwater pouring into the soils where the machine is digging.

Matt Preedy, WSDOT Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Program deputy administrator, said determining whether the pipe is definitely the root cause of the Bertha's problems will require further investigation.

The boring machine hit the pipe on Tuesday, Dec. 3 and on Thursday, Dec. 5 started to experience “increased resistance” moving forward, Dixon said. On Friday, Dec. 6 Bertha “pretty much ground to a halt.” The current stoppage began on Saturday, Dec. 7.

Crews have pulled a 55-foot length of the pipe out of the ground. About 60 feet of pipe apparently remain buried in front of the machine. A drilling contractor has bored 12 holes to determine what is blocking the machine, Dixon said. Six of those holes, he said, found evidence of something hard and metallic at the same depth across the machine’s face. On their website, WSDOT reported on Friday that 17 holes were drilled and four encountered obstructions.

WSDOT’s Preedy would not comment on the cost implications of the stoppage, daily operating expenses or how many unanticipated down-days were built into the plan for the tunnel.

The $3.1 billion project has a $40 million contingency fund. “I can say with confidence that some of those funds will get used,” Preedy said.

The 1.7-mile tunnel is about 10 percent complete. Bertha began digging in Sodo on July 30 last year and was slated to emerge in South Lake Union about 14 months later. The Tunnel will eventually replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct and is scheduled to be open for traffic in late 2015.

“Tunneling is hard,” Preedy said. “There’s always going to be some unknowns anytime you’re underground.”

Bill Lucia writes about Seattle City Hall and politics for Crosscut. He can be reached at bill.lucia@crosscut.com and you can follow him on Twitter @bill_lucia.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Jan 3, 11:17 p.m. Inappropriate

For God's sake, please do not keep quoting the idiots at WSDOT. All I have read since the wellhead was discovered has been CYA blather. Are we all so foolish to repeat that crap? It will be months before cause, failure, blame is established. Let us wait until then. Having read the soil reports and other pre-con docs, it is anyone's guess where things will end up. Give it a rest. Tell us about the wellhead and how they will address it. No more WSDOT blather

Posted Sat, Jan 4, 5:16 a.m. Inappropriate

How much a day does it cost to have Bertha idle? How many more days before they have the pipe casing removed or attempt to dig through it?
What are the costs associated with not making the scheduled completion date?

Cameron

Posted Sat, Jan 4, 7:50 a.m. Inappropriate

The $2.8 billion project has a $40 million contingency fund.

The contractor may be on the hook for any additional costs caused by this particular blockage.

In simple terms, the way this contract was structured WSDOT would be on the hook for additional costs due to "unforseen" underground conditions. However, as this abandoned pipe apparently was disclosed by WSDOT to the contractor its existence was not "unforseen".

By the way, the contract price was not $2.8 billion. Here's the WSDOT presser about it:

In addition to Seattle Tunnel Partners’ proposal price of just under $1.09 billion, the contract includes allowances for inflation, bonding and insurance requirements. Utility work reimbursed by the City of Seattle is also included in the contract. This brings the total contract amount to $1.35 billion, with up to $70 million in incentives.

http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/News/2011/01/6_SR99_contract.htm

crossrip

Posted Tue, Jan 7, 11:24 a.m. Inappropriate

"The $3.1 billion project has a $40 million contingency fund..."
Holy cow, do the budgets continue to increase faster than we can comment?

dchoffman

Posted Tue, Jan 7, 11:28 a.m. Inappropriate

In fact, looking at the original press release issued by WSDOT from 2011 linked by crossrip above, it appears that the tax payers have been cloak and dagger-ed again!
Last paragraph of the release:

"Total cost of the proposed bored tunnel is estimated to be $1.96 billion. This includes design, right-of-way acquisition, construction management, and more than $200 million set aside for risk. Also included in the $1.96 billion are separate, future construction contracts for roadway connections at the north and south ends of the tunnel."

dchoffman

Posted Thu, Jan 9, 9:25 a.m. Inappropriate

C'mon, guys, this is a taxpayer-funded project. That's like opening an all-you-can-eat trough in the pigpen. Remember how Safeco Field was "only" going to cost $260 million and it ended up at about a half-billion? Do I even need to mention Sound Transit?

No way does this thing cost less than $5 billion when all is said and done, and it wouldn't shock me if it approaches $10 billion. There is too much public money to be made by too many people to think anyone in charge is going to show the least bit of restraint or accountability. History indicates otherwise.

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