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    'Slightly optimistic' contractor: Bertha fix will take at least 6 months

    Working with the boring machine's manufacturer, Seattle Tunnel Partners has narrowed the possible repair plans to three options.
    WSDOT Deputy Program Administrator Matt Preedy discusses regularly scheduled Alaskan Way Viaduct inspections.

    WSDOT Deputy Program Administrator Matt Preedy discusses regularly scheduled Alaskan Way Viaduct inspections. Photo: Bill Lucia

    Hang in there, buddy.

    Hang in there, buddy. Photo: Bill Lucia

    Boring is unlikely to resume on the Highway 99 Tunnel for at least six months, the project's main contractor said on Friday.

    Repairing Bertha, the machine digging the tunnel, will involve constructing an 11-story deep, concrete lined access shaft near South Main Street, west of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners, is working closely with the machine's manufacturer, Hitachi Zosen, to choose one of three size options for the shaft, which would extend 36, 42, or 65 feet in front of the ailing rig. The shaft would be about 80-feet wide.

    The six-month estimate, according to Seattle Tunnel Partners project manager, Chris Dixon, is "slightly optimistic." Still, it is in-line with a report issued yesterday by an independent expert review panel assembled to keep the governor and Legislature updated on the project. That report projected that Bertha would be mining again in late summer or early fall. Building the shaft, Dixon said, would probably take about two months.

    "We would be obviously pleased to start tunneling earlier than that," he said. "but this isn't the time to try to accelerate things or take shortcuts, we need to go step-by-step."

    The repair operation will involve removing the machine's 57.5-foot diameter, 745-ton "cutter-head," which cuts through rock and soil in front of the machine. That will allow crews to access and replace a set of damaged seals that protect Bertha's main bearing assembly. Depending on the final repair plan, the machine's "cutter drive" unit, which turns the cutter-head might also be removed.

    The 35-foot diameter main bearing allows the cutter-head to spin. Dixon said that it's still unclear whether or not the bearing was damaged when the seals failed, but a spare is standing by at a Hitachi Zosen facility in Osaka, Japan.

    A final decision about the shaft configuration will probably be made in the next 10 to 14 days, Dixon said. If the contractor and manufacturer decide to go with the smallest shaft size, then they'll take the parts out of the pit and place them on the ground for repairs. The medium-sized version would allow for workers to fix the parts while they are standing upright in the shaft. The largest configuration would allow parts to be layed down horizontally on the shaft's floor.

    Seattle Tunnel Partners is waiting for Hitachi Zosen to confirm that each of the shaft sizes will provide enough space for workers to replace the machine's main bearing in the event that further inspection reveals that the $5 million part is in fact damaged. "We know they're all viable for the seal repair," Dixon said. "I feel comfortable with the options."

    Nothing to see here. The site where Seattle Tunnel Partners will dig an access shaft to repair Bertha. Photo: Bill Lucia 

    The Washington State Department of Transportation said Friday that portions of the Alaskan Way Viaduct will be closed this weekend in both directions for regularly scheduled inspections. The tunnel will eventually replace the aging concrete overpass. When the project began it was scheduled to open in December 2015. The expert panel report issued yesterday predicts that the opening date will be pushed back to summer or fall of 2016.

    The machine is currently about 1,000 feet along the 9,300-foot tunnel path, which runs from Sodo to South Lake Union. Since early December Bertha has moved about 4-feet. Under the terms of a contract between Seattle Tunnel Partners and Hitachi Zosen, until Bertha reaches 1,300 feet the contractor will not pay the manufacturer the final 10 percent of the cost for the nearly $90 million machine.

    There was no new information on Friday about the root cause of the bearing seal failure. And Dixon said Seattle Tunnel Partners and Hitachi Zosen were still discussing how they would divide repair costs. State officials have said repeatedly that they've yet to see any evidence that indicates taxpayers will be on the hook for any cost overruns associated with the delay or the repairs.

    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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    Posted Fri, Feb 28, 5:35 p.m. Inappropriate

    Fine reporting. Thank you.


    Posted Sat, Mar 1, 12:06 a.m. Inappropriate

    Are they going to give Bertha a hysterectomy or an implant? Either way it sounds very painful and would require an extended stay underground to enhance the healing process. We should send flowers.


    Posted Sat, Mar 1, 10 a.m. Inappropriate

    So who is guilty of cheating the taxpayers, Seattle Tunnel Partners, Hitachi Zosen, or both? I demand accountability.

    Posted Sat, Mar 1, 12:18 p.m. Inappropriate

    It appears to be a staged public 'we all take blame' approach, and we'll never actually know the real answer.

    WSDOT, STP, Hitachi Zosen all need this job to continue. The only people who do not are us, the paltry taxpayers.

    Posted Sat, Mar 1, 10:19 a.m. Inappropriate

    Do your job,and start asking the hard questions:

    Describe the drop-dead point when it is determined that Bertha cannot be fixed and you need to dismantle it and haul the pieces either up the shaft or back where it came from?

    How long would it take to build another Bertha(II) and how would you get it down there to continue digging?

    And, how long would it take to accomplish these feats?

    What happens when (not if) an earthquake damages the Viaduct, causing it to be closed indefinitely, prior to the tunnel being usable?

    Shouldn't WSDOT ex-appropriate Tunnel funds to retrofit the viaduct to avoid it being damaged and closed by an earthquake? If not, where would it get those funds?

    Where are the 110,000 daily vehicle trips to go if the Viaduct is closed indefinitely and the Tunnel is not complete?
    (Pay no attention to the recently announced decrease in traffic on the viaduct. Those trip reductions are normal due to construction activities. Those missing trips will return as soon as construction is done.)

    Shouldn't WSDOT start retrofitting the viaduct NOW, to reduce the risk of being without a transportation corridor through downtown?

    Does WSDOT have the unspent tunnel funds needed to retrofit the viaduct if the tunnel delays are extended further?

    Does WSDOT have cost/time estimates as to how many other breakdowns are likely/probable since Bertha is only 1/9 of the way to completing the Tunnel?

    If Bertha is repaired and starts digging, only to Breakdown sometime in a deeper configuration, what is the plan to make repairs or terminate the tunnel?

    These are just starters. I can think of many others to ask. Remember, the fox is in the hen-house and information coming from the fox, is not necessarily aimed at protecting the public's health, safety and welfare. Rather protecting private contractors, manufacturers, special interests and politicians covering their asses for getting us into this sink hole mess.

    Go get em!

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