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

Big Bertha: boring no more Credit: 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." 

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