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    Seattle's tunnel: No boring way it'll be done on time

    WSDOT says they don't have enough data to know for sure whether they can get Bertha back on schedule. Crosscut's analysis is more conclusive.

    The restricted flow of data and information from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has hampered schedule analysis of Seattle's deep bore tunnel project. WSDOT said "it is too early to speculate on the schedule" earlier this month and is sticking to that talking point, with a spokesperson telling Crosscut today that "it’s too soon to say if the end date for tunneling will be revised."

    But estimating project schedule impacts is vital when a megaproject with enormous financial and political implications faces a crisis.

    Crosscut has obtained daily tunneling data from WSDOT and performed basic analyses that show that finishing tunnel boring within the original 14 month schedule, which called for digging to be done around September of 2014, is now nearly impossible.

    In tunneling, two fundamental project measures are utilization and production. Utilization is a measure of a TBM's "uptime" versus "downtime." The machines are vast and complex and a large part of the challenge is to keep them running – and digging – as much as possible. The higher the utilization, the more effective the project is at getting digging done. A second fundamental measure is production, which is the rate that a tunnel machine can dig when it is running. High rates of production show that a project team has learned how to optimize machine, crews and techniques for the conditions being encountered.

    Tunnel project managers track and calculate utilization and production rates with detailed, high resolution data logged by minute, hour, shift and many more slices. For this analysis, we used the coarser daily data at hand, which nonetheless reveal the schedule implications of the current situation.

    Tunneling drives are usually slow at the start and increase as things get dialed in. But at a certain point, low utilization (machine uptime) can bite a schedule so hard that no realistic rate of production (digging) can catch up to the original schedule. At that point, the original schedule is blown and it's time to chart a new one.

    WSDOT's original timeline for completion of the tunnel and waterfront park. Graphic: WSDOT

    That is where Bertha is now, according to the data. Bertha's daily utilization since being launched has been a crushingly low 25 percent through January 27, 2014. That means 75 percent of the 182 project days since launch have been days where zero forward progress has been made. (These data do not distinguish any days where Bertha was operating, but may have made zero progress from any days where she wasn't operating at all — any day with zero progress was counted as a non-mining day.)

    In terms of production, Bertha's rates have varied on the days she has been digging. On the whole, she has averaged just under 22 feet a day on days when forward progress occurred. There have been only four mining days where she made more than 50 feet of progress and there have been 16 mining days where she eked out ten feet or less of forward progress.

    Over the entire time of the tunnel drive, from launch and including all machine downtime, Bertha's average progress is a meager six feet per day. That's a vivid demonstration of how a low utilization rate crushes a project's momentum and will ultimately impact the overall schedule.

    WSDOT has cited a high tunneling rate of 37 feet per day, but that only was during the four days immediately prior to Bertha's shutdown, when the TBM was being run at fill tilt — so much so that WSDOT demanded data from the contractor out of concern that the machine was being pushed beyond operating limits.

    To put the situation in big picture terms, a few weeks from now, Bertha will have used up half the original 14 month schedule, but only travelled about one-tenth of the planned distance. That is a schedule reality that will become increasingly difficult for WSDOT and Seattle Tunnel Partners to ignore before the press, the public and policy makers.

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    Posted Mon, Jan 27, 4:01 p.m. Inappropriate

    Not necessarily, any construction schedule has a substantial cushion built in. Which dirt, (in this case boring,) swallows up almost 100% of the time. Those who come behind, the electricians, plumbers, pipefitters HVAC people and all the others then balance the schedule. We almost always meet the schedule.

    Those of us in construction hate dirt, we always hope for some cushion on our end of the project, but it never comes. Throw a few more people at the job, tighten up procedures there are many things those of us following the dirt do to make up the schedule. The skilled crafts get the job done, usually with no help from the dirt people. They get the glory we get the job done.

    Posted Mon, Jan 27, 6:17 p.m. Inappropriate

    Fascinating stuff by a part-time reporter who writes well, but has no training in the construction trades and is trying to come off as a modern day Jimmy Olsen scoop-master. It would be helpful to hear responses from those with real project experience.

    Posted Sun, Feb 2, 11:06 a.m. Inappropriate

    @Sustainable, anyone can see that this job is in crisis. It doesn't take an experienced project manager to tell us that. The public drum beating is necessary when we are involved in building a 2-mile tunnel system that is the most expensive 2-miles in this country, maybe the world, and maybe even the universe. Dramatic? I hardly think so.

    Taxpayers got deeply shafted in 2009 when the state, port, county and city leaders signed the memorandum of agreement to build this tunnel. Allegory intended.

    Posted Mon, Feb 17, 12:33 a.m. Inappropriate

    It is in fact not even close to the most expensive two miles in this country. But nice try.


    Posted Mon, Feb 17, 1:40 p.m. Inappropriate

    Actually, it is the most expensive two mile stretch of public roadway in the country, and probably the world.

    Most expensive. In Seattle. Less than 2 miles.

    My relatives are rolling over their Washington and Seattle graves.

    Posted Mon, Jan 27, 8:27 p.m. Inappropriate

    Not to worry. In 6 months it has gone 10% of the distance so even with no speed up from the current rate it will be done by 2018. Not ideal but pretty good compared with the record of Light Rail which was originally scheduled to reach the U District by 2006 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Link_Light_Rail) and will finally make it only 10 years late.


    Posted Tue, Jan 28, 12:13 p.m. Inappropriate

    This is a tired, tired, tired trope. Once funding sources were locked in, and the project was underway, it proceeded more or less to plan. The tunneling to the UW came in UNDER schedule. The only difference is we don't line up around the block to say "I told you so" when the outcome of a government program is positive.

    I work in the private sector on software, IT infrastructure, and IT services projects. It's all well and good for us to sit atop our righteous indignation horse in the comments section, but based on 13 years as a consultant, infrastructure designer, builder, and project manager, I haven't seen a single thing in the private sector stick to its original project dates. The question is, once you're FINALLY underway, and your resources are locked in, can you get it done with minimal overruns? Notice I said MINIMAL. No ZERO. Because for all the screaming about public sector waste, fraud, and abuse, I see FAR MORE of it in the private sector, spread out over thousands of projects. So much that 're-baselining' is considered par for the course. From Boeing to Microsoft to the startup in your neighbor's garage.

    Hell, re-tiling my BATHROOM was over budget for time and cost. My last trip to the damn grocery store went over budget for time and cost. We make plans so we have something to shoot for. The fact is we - oursevles, our households, our companies and institutions, and our government - fail meeting plans all the time. But failing to plan at all is worse. So we keep doing it because it makes us better. Not perfect.

    I'm not just blithely excusing all overruns because "we're all human." We cannot be eternally tolerant of them. And this particular overrun is a huge problem for Seattle. Unfortunately, the way most of us talk about this problem, it doesn't appear we're interested in anything other than our own self-righteousness, passing judgment from our couches, and concern trolling. Tell us how much/long it will take to fix and get Bertha rolling again. I want a tunnel done. I don't want to re-litigate the past. Seattle wasted countless opportunities to improve because of this instinct to talk things to death.


    Posted Mon, Feb 17, 12:37 a.m. Inappropriate

    Well said. Boeing estimated that it would cost 5 billion dollars to develop the Dreamliner. It cost 15 billion dollars...Oooops.

    There are countless major private construction projects also that have gone far over budget.

    The idea that government has a monopoly on over-runs...is absured


    Posted Sun, Feb 2, 11:09 a.m. Inappropriate

    @WSDW ...

    And so much more expensive that we may not be able to afford to ever finish it ...

    "Let the spending continue" is your solution?

    Posted Tue, Jan 28, 6:14 a.m. Inappropriate

    @WSDW -- In the link you provided it says that the original light rail schedule was a projection made long before ground was broken, before Sound Transit was formed, and even before an EIS was done. Not exactly an apple-to-apples comparison, no? In fact, the tunnel from Capitol Hill to the U-District appears to be ahead of schedule and under budget.

    Posted Tue, Jan 28, 8:57 a.m. Inappropriate

    Well, Sound Transit's PR operatives are out spreading manure today:

    -- In fact, the tunnel from Capitol Hill to the U-District appears to be ahead of schedule and under budget.

    -- The tunneling to the UW came in UNDER schedule.

    Want some real facts?

    In the mid-1990's the democrats decided they HAD to have rail from the airport up to the University District. They put that deal on the ballot, and the public approved their plan. What followed was a debacle.

    The budget then for just the light rail tunnel that was going to run 4.5 miles from downtown to 45th Avenue in the University District was $557 million. It has increased over the years, by a lot. Now the budget for just the 3.2 mile tunnel from downtown to Husky stadium is $1.9 billion. The additional tunneling north of there to Northgate is another $2.1 billion.


    November 18, 2000

    Light rail ETA: one year late
    By Brier Dudley
    Seattle Times staff reporter

    Light-rail service in Seattle will be delayed at least a year because of Sound Transit's problems securing an affordable tunneling contract.

    Rail service from SeaTac to the University District was supposed to begin in November 2006. Now, it won't happen until late 2007 or perhaps even 2008.

    "There's going to be a delay. We're talking about months of delay, no question," said Paul Bay, the agency's light-rail director.

    When voters were asked to authorize the $3.9 billion system in 1996, they were told it would take 10 years to build a network that would include express buses and commuter trains as well as the light-rail system.

    Yesterday, officials said it's worth waiting to be sure the project can be built without large cost overruns.

    "I think the public's attitude would probably be, hey, if we have to take a little extra time to do this right, it's still better than not doing it at all," said state Transportation Secretary Sid Morrison, a member of Sound Transit's board.

    On Thursday, the board suspended contract negotiations after learning that the lowest bid on its main tunnel was $171 million more than budgeted.

    After two months of negotiations, the lowest bid from the chosen contractor, Modern Transit, was $728 million. Sound Transit had estimated the tunnel would cost $557 million.

    The 4.5-mile tunnel would extend the downtown transit tunnel beneath First Hill and Capitol Hill and under Portage Bay to the University of Washington.



    This is what happens when you have an unaccountable board with unlimited taxing and spending powers -- financial abuses of the public and lies from the flacks.

    Hey "nullbull" -- go ahead and tell everyone how much regressive tax revenue the political appointees controlling Sound Transit's board intend to confiscate from the individuals and families around here to secure the mountain of long term debt they want to sell. That's not comparable to your "bathroom remodel" or whatever it is you are blathering about. YOur contractor ripped you off because you are a helpless, gullible worm. The topic here is government megaprojects and their financing, not two-bit house remodels undertaken by the naive.


    Posted Thu, Jan 30, 9:02 a.m. Inappropriate

    With all due respect, you are mentioning the "pre construction costs and delays" That is very different than what happens after ground is broken.

    My biggest complaint with Sound Transit is that they hold hundreds of community meetings getting everyone's input and then there are the inevitable court battles, because of some idiot fighting progress. Usually a NIMBY. This is the phase of the project where only the lawyers win. I call it the inevitable "law firm tax". These are the leeches of the system that make every project cost significantly more.

    There are occasional construction delays, but I have far more faith in engineers, construction workers and contractors than I do lawyers and reporters. They are far cheaper and they actually do something valuable for a living.


    Posted Thu, Jan 30, 4:55 p.m. Inappropriate

    Oh c'mon abcytesla, there's still time to go to law school.

    Posted Thu, Jan 30, 10:06 a.m. Inappropriate

    @ abctesl: Your response there is nonsense. There were no "court battles" or lawsuits that caused any of the delays or staggering price increases of the Sound Transit megaprojects. That's a fact, Jack.

    Let's see if you have a clue about Sound Transit's capital costs and financing plans -- as everyone can see, "nullbull" ran off when he was asked to address that issue. Maybe you can do better.

    Go ahead and tell everyone how much regressive tax revenue the political appointees controlling Sound Transit's board intend to confiscate from the individuals and families around here to secure the mountain of long term debt they want to sell.

    If you can't do that, then you are ignorant about megaproject basics around here. You've been trying to sound authoritative -- show us your stuff.


    Posted Thu, Jan 30, 4:56 p.m. Inappropriate

    Oh c'mon crossrip, you really expect that abc can muster up the 123's?

    Posted Tue, Jan 28, 9:41 a.m. Inappropriate

    From the story:

    But estimating project schedule impacts is vital when a megaproject with enormous financial and political implications faces a crisis.

    True enough.

    The DEIS for East Link submitted in 12/08 estimated that megaproject's cost would be $2.8 billion. The ST2 measure the board put on the ballot the month before said East Link would be operating in 2020.

    What's the current East Link budget? When is it scheduled to begin operations?

    Can anyone link to any Sound Transit document with current information on those topics? I didn't think so . . ..

    This is what happens when you have an unaccountable board with unlimited taxing and spending powers -- financial abuses of the public and lies from the flacks. Plus, WSDOT is responsible for making sure all the work on the I-90 corridor highway infrastructure components won't harm their functionality or decrease their useful lives. Good luck with that.


    Posted Tue, Jan 28, 11:10 a.m. Inappropriate

    Both the "Seattle Times" and PI have lately pointed out that "the Transportation Department has already paid $774 million to Seattle Tunnel Partners, or just over half of the $1.44 billion total contract, as of November." Are the payments running 'ahead of schedule' on this? Wouldn't it be better (for us taxpayers) to have a payment schedule that tracks the 'work completed' schedule of the tunneling project, rather than runs way out ahead?

    Posted Tue, Jan 28, 12:21 p.m. Inappropriate

    Dude, we're not buying a latte. The order is not "put it in my hand FIRST, and THEN I'll pay you for it." We're doing one of the biggest, riskiest, most capital-intensive infrastructure projects this town has ever seen.

    What did you expect? The contractor would just spend hundreds of millions of dollars for years and months before we actually gave them any capital to invest? Because they just feel like doing us a solid?

    I'm fine with being frustrated with the progress. That's totally justified. But pretending that capital intensive projects are done before the capital is disbursed to the contractor is just fantastical. I paid my contractor AHEAD of the pace of work being completed when I put an addition on my house for God's sake - because the contractor needed to go buy the stuff to start building the addition. By what laws of business would a massive, billions-of-dollars tunnel operate such that it would look different?

    Let's get real.


    Posted Thu, Jan 30, 4:57 p.m. Inappropriate

    Goodie. $774 pretty much down the bore drain. Want to start a pool of how expensive this is going to end up?

    $12 billion for 2 miles is my wager. No money to bet with however, holding onto it to pay my fair share.

    Posted Tue, Jan 28, 12:20 p.m. Inappropriate

    Just wait until one of the buildings in Pioneer Square shows a crack or two with Bertha eating dirt nearby. Never mind what caused it (100 year old unreinforced masonry aside) as the engineers start a long head scratching process.
    Better theater is just around the corner when the project managers start finger pointing, the landlord is still screaming like a stuck pig, our politicians are sensing blood in the water, and what's left of the press corp are eating it up.
    Finally, a Big Dig of our own. Smoke that Boston!


    Posted Tue, Jan 28, 2:30 p.m. Inappropriate

    Matt continues on target with his tunnel reporting (the criticality of utilization and production I noted last July (http://crosscut.com/2013/07/19/alaskan-way-viaduct/115588/diggng-it-tunnel-geeks-watching-bertha/?page=single) but this refinement could be offered to his story today. Estimates of schedule (and cost) on every project, and especially on a project of this scale and complexity, are never more than statements of and assumptions about probability. Anyone asked today about the probability of the tunneling hitting schedule would have to say that it has been diminished by the current situation and its possible ramifications. However, until mining resumes and the machine’s capabilities can be reassessed in light of whatever sorts out from the shutdown, there is no way that a schedule revision can be prepared. When a public agency is expected to meet a standard of “transparency” and it is asked a question to which the answer is unknowable, saying precisely that is far preferable to conjuring up an “answer” that isn’t.

    Posted Tue, Jan 28, 5:47 p.m. Inappropriate

    Except when initially selling the project to the public.


    Posted Tue, Jan 28, 6:19 p.m. Inappropriate

    Yeah, when they start saying how 'conservative' their estimates are, and how it was all confirmed by their own 'Expert Review Panel', is the time to hold onto your wallet. Snake Oil still comes in bottles.


    Posted Sun, Feb 2, 10:05 a.m. Inappropriate

    Oh, lordy. The Geezer agrees with MacDonald? Is the sky falling?


    Posted Mon, Feb 3, 9:48 p.m. Inappropriate

    Count on a couple of chronic whiners here to knock a comment thread completely off target.

    Anytime I have to scroll to read a single comment, I know it's time to tune out.

    Posted Tue, Feb 4, 3:21 p.m. Inappropriate

    Did anyone actually think this wouldn't be a GIANT hole in the ground to deposit Seattle taxpayer dollars? Really? You didn't believe the politicians did you? Really?


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