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Bertha's chronically late, but at least her checkbook's balanced

A new independent report details the latest in the SR-99 boring saga.
Bertha's cutter-boring machine when it was being brought to Seattle in 2013.

Bertha's cutter-boring machine when it was being brought to Seattle in 2013. Washington State Department of Transportation/Flickr

Big Bertha: boring no more

Big Bertha: boring no more WSDOT

Bertha, the Highway 99 tunnel boring machine, will not start mining again until late spring or even fall, according to a report issued Thursday by an independent expert review panel. The project's current budget will probably suffice, according to the panel report, but contingency funds should be closely guarded.

The panel found that the tunnel should be finished in summer or early fall of 2016, about seven to nine months after its scheduled December 2015 completion date. That's still earlier than the original November 2016 date the Washington State Department of Transportation proposed when taking bids on the project.

Bertha has been mostly idle for nearly three months. Meanwhile, Seattle Tunnel Partners, the project's main contractor, is working with Bertha's manufacturer on a plan to fix damaged bearing seals at the front of the machine.

Tunneling, which is currently about 10 percent done, is unlikely to restart until June or even October of this year according to the report. A representative for Seattle Tunnel Partners said in early February that mining could still be finished as scheduled, in late September.

The report also mentions a "strained" relationship between WSDOT and the contractor.

"If this relationship is not quickly repaired," the report says, "this critical relationship could be irreparably damaged, potentially adversely affecting successful completion of the Project."

WSDOT Program administrator Todd Trepanier, though, played down any pressure between the two parties, saying the agency has open lines of communication with Seattle Tunnel Partners.

"When you have a contract of this magnitude, there's going to be appropriate tension that takes place between the owner and the contractor," he said. "We interact frequently, multiple times throughout the day. We're very committed to understanding each other's needs."

Dr. Patricia Galloway, the engineer who chairs the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Expert Review Panel, said that turnover in high level positions at WSDOT, including the appointment of Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson last February and Trepanier's recent move to the the administrator position, had led to some of the tension.

On megaprojects, she said, when high level staff change and introduce new communication and management styles, mismatched expectations can arise between the agency and the contractor. The change, not the individual's style, she emphasized, is what can strain relationships and "can sometimes be frustrating, if you're used to communicating with someone in one manner."

"If people believe that expectations are not being met, it can lead to adversarial relationships," she added. "Those relationships can compound one another and impede a project from getting done."

Daily meetings between WSDOT and STP representatives that began this week, she said, are a positive step.

The report also touches on the project's $205 million in contingency funds, which should be adequate, it says, though not squandered.

"To strengthen the contingency’s adequacy," the report recommends, "any unanticipated savings from projects that turn out to cost less than budgeted should be returned to the contingency pool." 

Trepanier said Thursday that he didn't know the current balance of the contingency accounts. Later, WSDOT spokesperson Laura Newborn said that "there have been some funds spent," but could not give an exact amount.

Seattle Tunnel Partners is expected to announce plans and a schedule for repairing Bertha tomorrow or early next week.

Meanwhile, Bertha will remain stationary — 60 feet beneath Pioneer Square near South Main Street, just 1,000 feet (give or take) along the 9,300-foot tunnel route.

Though WSDOT has been tightlipped about project schedules, the panel's report indicates that Bertha should have reached "Safe Haven Three" around Dec. 28, 2013 — a point about 600 or 700 feet further than the machine's current location.

The panel reports their findings to the governor and the state Legislature. They noted in the report that there will be uncertainty and risks going forward. "As with any project of this size and complexity," the report said, "challenges remain that could adversely affect the Project." 

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 Thu, Feb 27, 3:46 p.m. Inappropriate

Two words: "Big Dig". That project went over budget and overtime for various reasons. Who's to say that Bertha doesn't run into something else in the next 200' it bores and ends up stuck again underground, but now under buildings or other structures preventing them from digging another pit to get at her innards.

What then? This was a boondoggle from the beginning. It's some engineer's wet dream, not a practical solution to traffic and replacing the Aqueduct.

kedamono

Posted Fri, Feb 28, 7:45 a.m. Inappropriate

There's a fair amount of language here about differences in communication styles can lead to adversarial relationships between WSDOT and STP. Put plainly, I suspect that means that the two parties are positioning themselves for the lawsuits to come.

As for not knowing the balance in the contingency accounts or how much of the funds have been spent, and being tight-lipped about project schedules, first, I can't believe they don't know the account balance or how much they've spent, but if that's true, who do we have running this stuff? This is precisely the kind of mismanagement and lack of oversight that opponents have warned about from the birth of this idea. Second, since this is a public project, aren't we entitled to know any detail we want? How is being tight-lipped about anything to do with it supportable? Maybe our journalists should be, if they're not already, flooding the appropriate places with PRA requests and bringing us this information; we're paying for it.

We teach our kids and expect adults to be responsible, to know their bank balances and to manage their money responsibly. Why are we citizens allowing our state agencies and hirees (the contractors) to get away with this obfuscation? And on the agency/contractor side, can they really imagine that by not telling us the details they are sparing us and themselves any concern over the competence of those involved to manage our money in a responsible way? The secrecy says it all to me; they're in trouble and frantically working to figure out ways to spin it. We deserve better.

mspat

Posted Fri, Feb 28, 8:29 a.m. Inappropriate

Let the bureaucrats, politicians and contractors worry about fixing the Bad Bertha within the budget and on time or so.

What we should ALL be focused on is making sure the Viaduct has the best chance of withstanding an earthquake. Because, if a quake occurs before the tunnel is usable, and closes the Viaduct indefinitely, the only North/South transportation corridor through downtown is I-5, and that one is already a parking lot!
We are ALL at great risk if that scenario happens. Having to accommodate the 110,000 daily vehicle trips onto city streets and I-5 will cause Transportation Armageddon, backing traffic up onto the two floating bridges, 405, and more.
So, before all the money is spent on the tunnel, funds to cover the retrofitting of the Viaduct should be expropriated now, from the total project costs, and immediately start retrofitting the viaduct.
The States present position of inspections, earthquake monitors and gates to close off the viaduct, deal with preventing any loss of life. WSDOT does not deal with the likely loss of the transportation corridor in an earthquake. That's the scare tactic that was used by tunnel proponents to get the tunnel approved. But with the strong likelihood of time being extended until completion, the risk grows greater.
And, don't be fooled by the report that viaduct trips have drastically decreased. Those lost trips are somewhere in the transportation system, either on other streets, highways or buses. But once the obstructions are removed presently being caused by construction activity, most of those vehicle trips will reappear. And then there are the tolls.
You get it?

So, Bertha needs to move over in terms of headlines, and share the spotlight of a greater concern for protecting us from the loss of the corridor altogether.
If you believe a viaduct-damaging earthquake could occur prior to the tunnel completion, then you deserve to have a Plan B. RETROFIT THE VIADUCT NOW!

Posted Fri, Feb 28, 11:07 a.m. Inappropriate

Traffic Armageddon. Bring it on! Enlist Mars Hill christian freaks to spout off End Times blather and do something worthwhile with their time for a change. The bore tunnel further destabilizes waterfront soils, making catastrophic destruction in even modest earthquakes more likely. God hates Seattle's misanthropic free market libertarians. It's in the Bible, man! God hates free market libertarians!

Wells

Posted Sat, Mar 1, 2:18 p.m. Inappropriate

Agree!

mspat

Posted Fri, Feb 28, 8:53 a.m. Inappropriate

TUNNEL MATH

The tunnel is approximately 1.7 miles long or 9000 feet.
Bertha got stuck in the first 1000 feet. That's 1/9th of the tunnel length in it's shallowest position. It is projected to take several months to fix Bertha, let's estimate 6 months.
If Bertha get's stuck again, in a deeper configuration, the fix will take longer or even be a deal breaker. With 8/9ths of the tunnel yet to be dug, and the likelihood of one or more breakdowns or significant delays yet to go, when will the tunnel be complete?
One can project one significant delay every 1000 feet at 6 months of delay each, based on present conditions. That extends the duration of construction (9 X 6 months)to 4 1/2 years beyond the 2016 estimated completion, or 2021.
I don't know about you, but I'd make sure the Viaduct was around and working at least until then, if not longer.
What say Ye?

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