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Bertha: Worthy of a museum

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

June 18, 2019 Seattle — The International Tunnel Boring Machine Museum opened to great fanfare yesterday, despite the painful and expensive history of the Seattle waterfront project.

Thousands of people came to watch the ribbon-cutting. Ceremonies included the UW marching band and even a parade down Alaskan Way. Current politicians attended, but most politicians of the era when the "Seattle Big Dig" began stayed away, including former Gov. Christine Gregoire and former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. Not even the most prominent tunnel opponent, U.S. Rep. Mike McGinn, came. His congressional press office said he had important votes to attend in Washington, D.C. though no votes were listed on the House Web site.

"We've really made lemonades out of lemons. It is really a fantastic experience, worth a trip from out of town or even from around the world." Museum Director Kareen Smithson said. "We stay out of the politics of the tunnel project by creating a top quality museum that makes reference to what happened, but doesn't dwell on it.

The museum is unique. It begins in the 1/4 mile tunnel built by the boring machine, and allows visitors to climb up and even into the machine. Interactive exhibits show how tunnels are dug, the types of tunnel boring machines and show the history of tunneling. Kids have several tunnel boring machine models they can practice operating. Six-year-old Janie Rodriguez said, "I've never seen anything like this. It is amazing!"

Tickets for the museum are sold out until November. The $20 admission fee helps pay for the museum's expenses, which is expected to be free of state money by 2021.

The museum was not meant to exist. When construction on the Alaskan Way tunnel began in 2013, the Washington Department of Transportation officials were upbeat. After almost a year of start-and-stop digging, the machine had moved only 1,300 feet. The project stalled amid a flurry of accusations between the tunnel contractors and state officials, and ultimately a flurry of lawsuits.

No definitive report on the cause was ever created.  But many tunneling experts faulted the contractor for selecting what they believe was the wrong tunneling machine type and the state for not noticing the problem. The legal matters were settled out of court, with the state's taxpayers on the hook for $1.5 billion of the $1.75 billion project cost. State officials now project an additional $4 billion is necessary to rebuild the Viaduct.

State officials sold the tunnel and the machine last year for $1 to the museum, as the machine would have cost more to remove than its parts are worth.

This story has been updated since it first appeared to correct a spelling mistake.

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