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Berthing Pains

Credit: WSDOT

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.

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