Berthing Pains

They're symptoms of a much bigger WSDOT problem.

So, the story of Bertha's blockage gets even more interesting.

While Seattle fifth graders — and everybody else — speculated on what was stopping our big boring machine, Washington Department of Transportation already knew: Bertha was spitting out pieces of metal pipe, a pipe that was exactly where it was supposed to be, where WSDOT placed it back in 2002.

Bertha had run into an obstacle of WSDOT's own making — and it seems to have damaged the rig.

It's a "wow" moment. What is it with WSDOT? Ferries that lean, pontoons that crack, Columbia River bridges designed too low. The agency responsible for huge mega-projects (520, the tunnel, etc.) is the gang that can't drill straight.

As a result of the pontoon debacle of 2012, a scathing internal report was issued in 2013 and heads rolled. WSDOT's own bridge people designed pontoons that were structurally unsound. Part of the problem: They failed to double check their work. Also: They didn't know what they were doing. And: They were trying to meet ridiculous deadlines set by politicians, like then Gov. Christine Gregoire. Mismanagement, incompetence, hasty decisions, poor communications: It was not a pretty sight.

Before the new 520 has even been laid across Lake Washington, the project has already burned through its $250 million contingency fund. Indeed, last August, WSDOT estimated the pontoon fixes would cost at least $400 million. As the project's manager told Q13Fox, "It’s definitely not something that we’re very proud of, but we’re working hard to manage it."

But who's managing the managers?

WSDOT promised to redouble its efforts to vet its other Seattle mega-project, lest the tunnel fall prey to a pontoon-like blunder. We can see how that's going.

However shaky its project management skills, WSDOT has certainly perfected a kind of PR art form. They release information sparingly — agency officials refused last week to speculate on the magnitude of the costs to date of Bertha's blockage — and enthusiastically anthropomorphize their engineering work. It's not a machine, it's Bertha, supposedly named for Bertha Knight Landes, Seattle's only female mayor. Cute idea, though as one former WSDOT higher up said to me, it's rather ridiculous to name something as phallic as a tunnel boring machine after a woman.

And Bertha speaks, along with WSDOT's other mega-projetcts. WSDOT uses social media to monitor projects as if they are newborns in a crib. You could, for example, track the journey of the huge 520 pontoons through the Ballard Locks, or Bertha resting in her launch pit. WSDOT wants us to bond with the newborns. They aren't boondoggles, they're billion-dollar babies!

The only thing I haven't seen yet is Bertha take a selfie.

Big projects go over budget; we know this from the studies and experience. Big projects are risky and they encounter unknowns; we know this from the engineers and consultants. All that is more or less expected.


The Skagit River Bridge collapsed last spring when a truck clipped a girder. John Stang

But what we're seeing is a disturbing pattern of self-inflicted wounds. Soil conditions are one thing. Drilling into your own pipes and botching your own pontoon designs? These aren't acts of the gods. They are foreseeable and avoidable.

I am also politely leaving out issues like whether either of these projects will actually work as advertised. That's a  whole 'nother (but related) story.

The state legislature is having difficulty coming up with a new transportation package. The House and Senate packages being discussed are already larded with retro thinking (roads, roads, roads) and short-change maintenance, transit and innovation. And they carry big price-tags.

Given the current questions about WSDOT's competence and management, it makes you wonder whether we're better off with gridlock.

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.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Sun, Jan 5, 5:10 a.m. Inappropriate

But who's managing the managers?

Democrats have been in the Governors Mansion for almost thirty years and in control of at least one chamber of the legislature for nearly the same amount of time. The consequences of one party control is the the bureauacry gets seeded with politically like minded invididuals, patronage hires and diversity of thought becomes a discussion of where to go for lunch.

Reform starts at the top.

Cameron

Posted Sun, Jan 5, 5:13 a.m. Inappropriate

Bureaucracy..sorry for the typo.

Cameron

Posted Sun, Jan 5, 8:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Well, sure . . . the pattern of WSDOT mismanagement referenced here is real enough. It's no surprise though that the government heads don't like bringing issues like this up. When it comes to megaprojects, Pollyannaism really is their only option.

This piece should have looked forward, not just backward. It fails to address what WSDOT has been doing (and not doing) with regard to its plans to convert a large part of all its I-90 infrastructure between Bellevue and Seattle to a rail corridor.

In 2008 WSDOT said Sound Transit train service will be operational across the I-90 bridge in 2020. When's the estimate for that now? 2024 at the earliest?

WSDOT's engineers are planning to hand over huge swaths of the I-90 corridor bridge pontoons, ramps, and anchoring systems to Sound Transit. That unaccountable municipality needs those highway infrastructure elements for its grandiose rail plans. Contractors WSDOT approves then would start grinding off the road surface and try building up a heavy, rigid rail trackbed system onto those concrete components spanning Lake Washington. Guess what that will cause: stress cracks throughout what remains of those hollow re-bar reinforced concrete boxes.

The cracks in the new SR 520 pontoons were fixed. There will be cracks in the I-90 floating bridge elements caused by the proposed re-engineering to make that bridge “suitable” for use as a part-railbed, part-roadway structure. Those won't be easy to fix.

WSDOT now has one engineer residing at Sound Transit’s headquarters to verify all the proposed engineering and construction work would not damage any of the I-90 corridor highway infrastructure elements, or cause them to degrade at an accelerated rate. That individual was selected because he is a master at “don't ask don't tell”.

Here is a report from what was called the Independent Review Team engineers in 2008 that scratches the surface of the monumental risks that would be presented by this audacious and completely unprecedented conversion of a concrete pontoon floating bridge for motor vehicles to a rail trackbed platform:

www.wsdot.wa.gov/partners/irt/MaterialsSources/IRT-LightRailTrainImpacts-Final_Report.pdf .

That lists a number of engineering hurdles, and the major ones have not even been studied in detail. Getting this highway facility to function safely and durably as a railbed is preposterous. The resulting structure would be topheavy, and too rigid. It says this on page 10:

“Prototype testing and vetting of the track bridge concept design needs to be performed as soon as possible. This type of track bridge has never been utilized before, and there are no historical data available for the IRT to judge the feasibility of this concept.”

That prototype production and testing now is underway in Colorado, far out of sight of WSDOT engineers, the press, and the public.

No reputable civil engineering firm has been willing to provide any written assurances that the extensive re-engineering of that I-90 corridor highway infrastructure – especially the bridges and ramps – would not damage or degrade the integrity of what would remain of those concrete structures. No naval architects have sanctioned this megaproject’s designs or even the basic concept.

The audacity of the “plan” is immense. Overseen by WSDOT, contractors would grind off roadway surface. Then ground-penetrating radar would be used to try to locate the steel rebar mesh so that the new support structures for the rail bed could be inserted in such a way that they missed the steel. Then some construction firm WSDOT would oversee would try to build up on the concrete pontoon floating bridge an as-yet-undesigned heavy train trackbed and rails, a maintenance road, and twin-pylon-supported 1500 volt dc power lines. The latest word? A brand new “superlight concrete” will be used to anchor the electrical catenary pylons to the structures mounted on the pontoons. Good luck with that.

Everybody agrees that stray electrical currents essentially can not be prevented and they would cause accelerated degradation of the existing rebar-reinforced structural elements and the cables and other components of the anchoring system.

The thin box concrete structures out there floating on that big lake in the I-90 corridor already are 24 years old. They are subjected to extreme stresses during storms. Given concrete’s poor shear strength characteristics and the fact that these structures were not designed to be converted this way, a very real risk exists that safety margins, and the useful life of these valuable highway components, will be degraded significantly by that proposed reengineering work.

Neither WSDOT nor Sound Transit has hired an engineering firm yet to quantify all the risks, let alone assure them and the public that this proposal is feasible.

We love a good challenge up here in this neck of the woods though, right? Plus, we've got a highly-trained WSDOT engineer sitting in Sound Transit’s headquarters now, so everyone can be assured it’s “all systems go!”

crossrip

Posted Mon, Jan 6, 4:50 p.m. Inappropriate

Don't forget the day Paula Hammond ripped apart the economic life of both Whidbey Island and Port Townsend when she pulled the 4 Steel Electric ferries from service the Wednesday of the Thanksgiving weekend in 2007 -- with no notice to the public, to the commercial businesses or anyone. Transparency in government?? Finding solutions before creating chaos???

Port Townsend was basically marooned without a car ferry for well more than a year. A tiny whale watching boat was not a good substitute for the PT/Keystone run.

And let's not forget the year that the DOT sunk the new I-90 bridge because of a man-caused error, not the huge storm that came up that year.

Everything DOT touches goes vastly overbudget.
The only other governmental agency that is worse than DOT is DSHS.

Posted Tue, Jan 7, 2:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Hmmm. I detect some flip-flopping. The Whidbey and Port Townsend ferries were pretty low on ridership fare counts - why then keep them around in your usual (il)logic?

Treker

Posted Tue, Jan 7, 4:42 p.m. Inappropriate

Flip flopping? There is no flip flopping. All the ferries, per rider mile, cost the taxpayers far less than Sound Transit. The Clinton/Mukilteo ferry rider fees pay a huge amount towards the actual costs -- something like 78% of actual costs -- why shouldn't every transit system be required to pay as much from the users themselves? Oh .... because Sound Transit is .... special? Why so? Only because most taxpayers have no idea that they pretty much have zero say in the cost of those pretty, sleek low-ridership commuter trains.

Did you know that the ferries move as many passengers per year as does SeaTac Airport? Look at the stats provided on the WSF website.

For any ferry served region to lose it's car ferry for more than a year means businesses go under, people lose mobility and lose jobs, opportunities and time. It was unconscionable for Paula Hammond to order those 4 boats put out to pasture. Read up on where they went by the way ... festering in wetlands in Mexico because the WSF/DOT had no plan for properly selling them or disposing of them. Gross ineptitude.

Why are the ferries allowed to fester and Sound Transit gets the bulk of the transportation dollars? Sound Transit ridership counts are absolutely pathetic compared to every ferry run.

Posted Sun, Jan 5, 11:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Scary piece, Knute. Thanks. Thanks Crossrip also. In addition to the politicians the local media are not doing so great either. Coverage has been more light-hearted than is likely justified.

kieth

Posted Sun, Jan 5, 12:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Let's not forget that the rehab and widening of the Spokane Street Viaduct was managed by our own SDOT and so far as I can tell, was on time and on budget (something like $175 million).
http://www.seattle.gov/transportation/spokanestreet.htm

So government agencies can do things successfully and we should not forget that. Agencies which do a good job should receive praise.

The irony of course is that literally at the same time, local government, media (Crosscut included) and the general public totally ignored the Spokane Street Viaduct success as a possible model for dealing with the Alaska Way Viaduct. Totally ignored. What a weird situation: The City is actually rehabbing one viaduct while claiming that another one must ("must") be torn down.

UPDATE: I am puzzled by the photo of the Skagit River Bridge. The Bridge was damaged because we, the public, are not willing to pay to keep up infrastructure. Thus the undersized functionally obsolete bridge. In fact, it appears that WSDOT did a very GOOD job of getting the temporary and then permanent fixes done. So why tar WSDOT when it seems as if WSDOT did well?

Posted Sun, Jan 5, 8:31 p.m. Inappropriate

The Skagit River bridge was damaged because a truck hit its superstructure. The superstructure was negligently designed, and/or the offending truck should have been in the other lane. Nothing to do with whether "we, the public, are not willing to pay to keep up infrastructure." I, a member of the public, prefer to pay to keep up infrastructure rather than pay for whatever is being done to Mercer Street for hundreds of millions of dollars -- but I wasn't asked. Were you?

simorgh

Posted Mon, Jan 6, 9:29 a.m. Inappropriate

Amen!

mspat

Posted Mon, Jan 6, 4:53 p.m. Inappropriate

That bridge did NOT come down because "we the public, are not willing to pay to keep up infrastructure". It came down because the DOT did not test that bridge, and numerous others, and implement a plan to replace, rebuild or close such bridges.

The public will happily spend money if it is kept informed, and if it sees projects being managed very well.

Right now, the public is becoming more and more disillusioned, and frankly, very angry.

Posted Mon, Jan 6, 5:48 p.m. Inappropriate

I'll stick with my comment.

We the voters -- in general, not Crosscut readers of course -- elected the people now in office and they reflect our priorities. Many politicians may be venal but they are not stupid; they do, writ large, reflect the priorities of their constituents which includes everything from the Tunnel Fiasco to (Federal) NSA over-reaching.

So, yes, the Skagit Bridge failure -- to the extent that reasonably foreseeable delayed maintenance was the cause and not just plain bad luck, which does happen -- is the responsibility of the voters.

The people of Seattle, including Crosscut and many though not all its readers, cooperated in their own duping by backing the Tunnel. It's undeniable. Did the politicians lie? Probably so. But the voters were happy to hear the lies. So whether we like it or not, our friends and neighbors are legally and should be responsible for the Tunnel and whatever happens.

If people are angry they ought to look in the mirror.

Posted Tue, Jan 7, 3:25 p.m. Inappropriate

I beg to differ with your position that we, the voters, are responsible because we voted these folks into office. While literally true, many of us might vote differently if there were options. But regrettably, our ballots do not contain a "None of the Above" option. If they did, I think we'd see at least a few, and perhaps many, seats vacant because often no candidate reflects a given constituent's values. I know I more and more often find myself choosing those who I deem less bad than the other candidates. I rarely see someone on our city or state ballots that I unreservedly support. I vote for the less bad in self-defense against the truly awful.

And we are stuck with no options after an election season strident with unrelenting ads that say nothing and TV and radio broadcasts where the interviewers allow candidates to blather on at length about nothing and avoid answering even the most finely pointed questions, reams of garbage mailers saying nothing, and robo calls wrecking our peace to tell us nothing. I have to wonder how I got on the list of robo calls for local elections when I pay to have an unpublished number and never give it out.

Our media are not helping us. Neither are the endless reports of poll results, which also mean nothing. I am sure there are plenty of us who realize that polls can be very finely tuned to produce only the "statistics" sought by the buyers.

I'd like to see an election process that cut the mics every time one of the candidates dodges a question, leaves poll results out of our newscasts and other media, and generally holds the feet of candidates to the fire. I doubt I'll ever see it. After all corporations, who fund a lot of this, are people with free speech rights. I only wish for a mechanism by which I could avoid their speech while still being able to enjoy the radio, TV, and/or newspaper.

We are stuck with electeds who are disconnected from everyday life and like it that way. Those who might be different cannot afford the current process or cannot stomach it sufficiently to participate. I don't have an answer, but I can say for sure that yes, I am responsible for my votes, which include some for the current bunch, but no, that doesn't mean they were my choice; they were only the least bad alternative (with a few exceptions).

mspat

Posted Mon, Jan 6, 12:26 p.m. Inappropriate

A lot of us rely on retro thinking ("roads, roads, roads") to get to work. Toy train sets are fun for the central planners, but they don't help very many people in the real world.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Jan 6, 4:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Agree. The war on cars has got to end.

Posted Mon, Jan 6, 1:50 p.m. Inappropriate

Roads are not "retro." lol What a stupid comment.

If roads are retro, what are trains? You think cars and trucks have been around longer than trains? And what is "transit" if not trains and buses? Don't buses need roads? Or, are buses "future" and roads "retro"?

This sort of stupidity and just outright moronic hatred of roads and motor vehicles has got to stop. Roads and very energy-efficient motor vehicles (no matter what they run on -- gasoline, diesel, natural gas, hydrogen or electricity) are the future! This may well include driverless vehicles.

It is trains -- including streetcars -- and buses which are "retro." Most people rode streetcars and trains well before there was any national highway system in the U.S. So, you want to go back to the past -- "retro" trains and streetcars?

Really, Knute Berger, stop being so freaking stupid.

Lincoln

Posted Mon, Jan 6, 4:57 p.m. Inappropriate

Lincoln, dbrenaman wasn't saying roads are retro. He was saying retro thinkers like roads, because they affordably move our cars.

Transit is too expensive, too inefficient, and move only a few. Not sustainable.

Posted Tue, Jan 7, 9:18 a.m. Inappropriate

I was not commenting on dbrenaman's comment. I was commenting on Knute Berger's column.

Lincoln

Posted Tue, Jan 7, 10:46 p.m. Inappropriate

Transit moves "only a few"? You mean a bus moves only a few compared to a car? That's an astoundingly stupid claim.

sarah90

Posted Wed, Jan 8, 1:43 p.m. Inappropriate

Hmm, Sarah90, I am afraid that you -- yes, you the "progressive" -- have made the astoundingly stupid claim here. And not just by a little bit, either. See, when a Seattle "progressive" decides to get stupid, she gets really, really stupid on us! Hang on, sarah90, because I'm going to show you just how astoundingly stupid your claim is.

In King County, there are 44.2 million vehicle miles traveled each day, or about 22 miles per capita. Buses account for 1.35 million passenger miles per day, or two-thirds of one mile (0.675 miles, to be kind of exact) per capita, or 3% of daily passenger miles traveled in the county. Not my numbers, but the WSDOT and King County Metro's numbers. See, unlike you, I don't just make shit up because it sounds good at the time.

For transit stats, see:

http://tinyurl.com/trnststat

For total vehicle miles, see:

http://tinyurl.com/vehml

If we were going truly zero in on the answer, we'd certainly make some adjustments to reconcile total vehicle miles to passenger miles. For instance, we could adjust the bus share of miles traveled upward to reflect the fact that many of the vehicles on King County streets and highways are commercial vehicles not comparable to passenger buses.

There is also the undeniable fact that some "King County" miles are logged by vehicles that are just passing through. Of course, if we were going to start making adjustments, we'd also need to account for the average population of 1.2 passengers per commuter car and 1.6 passengers per car for other uses.

In no case, after all legitimate adjustments, can I imagine coming anywhere close to 10% of passenger miles traveled in King County being on traveled on buses. At certain times of day, on certain routes, of course it would go above 10%. But in terms of the whole, it's absolutely true that buses are an insignificant means of conveyance here. Sarah90, like the typical "progressive," wouldn't know a fact if it slithered up and licked her ankle and said please.

So, sarah90, how does it feel to be just one more Seattle "progressive" who makes up her lies as she goes along? What new lie will you try to concoct to wiggle your way out of the last one? After all, you are a Seattle "progressive," and your crowd couldn't acknowledge a fact or tell the truth if your sorry, dishonest lives depended on it.

Here's an idea: Maybe you could do a Sarah Palin on us and start sputtering about how, on a clear day, you can see the buses in Russia?

NotFan

Posted Tue, Jan 7, 3:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Exactly. And ditto for the retro tenements they're allowing to be built as well.

mspat

Posted Mon, Jan 6, 5:06 p.m. Inappropriate

I would submit that your “whole ‘nother issues” regarding whether or not WSDOT megaprojects will actually work as planned be considered BEFORE bridge pontoons wind up on the bottom of Lake Washington or Bertha breaks her teeth on someone’s lunch bucket.

Even if this enormously expensive tunneling proceeds flawlessly to completion the finished project will still only provide about half the capacity and virtually none of the access of the existing viaduct.

Who did the math on that?

jmrolls

Posted Mon, Jan 6, 5:12 p.m. Inappropriate

People with low math skills and a hatred towards cars and healthy, good economic growth obviously did the math on this tunnel project ... but you already knew that.

Posted Wed, Jan 8, 6:19 p.m. Inappropriate

But, you see, "progressives" regard arithmetic as tyranny.

NotFan

Posted Tue, Jan 7, 1:37 a.m. Inappropriate

Sorry, Knute, but Sound Transit stole KC Metro's lunch money. Let the Seattle "progressives" try fixing that one. And if they think the same electorate that crushed McGinn's $60 car tabs will raise them even more, all of you are in for a rude surprise. Don't like us ornery voters? Too bad. Eventually, you'll clean the bullshit out of your ears and start listening to the people who pay the bills around here.

NotFan

Posted Tue, Jan 7, 10:49 p.m. Inappropriate

We all pay the bills, NotFan. As far as I know, my taxes have not been forgiven because I'm not a Republican.

sarah90

Posted Thu, Jan 9, 9:15 p.m. Inappropriate

Something tells me that you take more than you give.

NotFan

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »