Bertha's long hibernation: Still hope for an on-time finish?

Repairs on the machine will take an extra six months but officials say they might have options for getting the new Highway 99 tunnel open as scheduled.
The now-damaged green cutter head was lowered into place before the Bertha tunnel-boring machine began operations on the Seattle waterfront in 2013.

The now-damaged green cutter head was lowered into place before the Bertha tunnel-boring machine began operations on the Seattle waterfront in 2013. WSDOT

Bertha won't go full bore on her digging until probably March 2015 — about six months behind the previously estimated restart target. All this means that Bertha could be stuck for a total 16 months.

"We are disappointed. ... with the delays associated with restart," said Todd Trepanier, the Alaskan Way Viaduct program administrator for the Washington State Department of Transportation. He added, "These delays are not what people have been looking forward to."

He made his remarks as state officials and its contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners, on the waterfront tunneling project unveiled new details of their plans to repair and restart the giant tunnel-boring machine. An STP official gave a hopeful assessment.

This delay could bump the tunnel's opening back by four to five months. However, STP is trying to keep to the current November 2016 opening date by working on the tunnel's operations facilities and other sub-projects that were originally scheduled to be tackled toward the end of the project. 

The tunnel boring machine dubbed "Bertha" has been stalled since early December due to seals breaking in the cutter head, with grit and sand getting into the main bearing. The full restart had been scheduled for this September, but that has been delayed by another six months, the state and STP announced Monday. Broad hints had surfaced in recent weeks that the September restart target would not be achieved. The tunnel will eventually replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct, which could fail in a major earthquake. Bertha is currently about 1,000 feet along the 9,300-foot tunnel path, which begins in SoDo and ends in South Lake Union.

Bertha is currently 60 feet underground just west of the viaduct near Pier 48. The master plan is to dig a 83-foot diameter shaft that will go 120 feet into the ground in front of the boring machine and then move Bertha into the shaft. The cutter head section with broken seals and main bearing — weighing several hundred tons — would then be lifted out of the shaft and replaced. Originally, the seals were considered the chief problem. But then the main bearing's issues showed up.

The actual shaft digging cannot begin into until a ring of 75 boreholes are dug around the shaft site. Then concrete will be injected to form a barrier to prevent water form seeping in. Meanwhile, the site is being studied to determine if anything archaeologically significant will be found in the shaft area.

The actual excavating is tentatively scheduled to begin in late July and to finish in September.  Removal of the cutter head is expected to begin in October. It will be replaced by a new cutter head that manufacturer Hitachi Zosen Corp. is currently storing in Japan. Testing of the tunnel-boring machine is set for February 2015, with actual tunneling expected to resume in late March 2015.

"It's a whole series of challenges and complex activities. ... We want the machine to be in 100 percent tip-top condition so we don't have a repeat (of the 16-month delay)," Chris Dixon, Seattle Tunnel Partners project manager said.

Dixon said it is unknown how the six-month tunneling delay will affect the project's cost. Trepanier said the state's contract with STP appears to guard the extra costs from being transferred to the taxpayers. With progress on the actual tunneling impossible, the project has recently laid off roughly 60 employees, but still has 300 people working.

Referring to the March 2015 goal, Dixon said, "Internally at STP, we're fairly confident we can beat this date." STP may have a financial incentive for limiting the delay to 16 months or even trying to get Bertha back in service early. The state has taken the position that problems with the tunnel won't allow STP to bill taxpayers for cost overruns. 

Check out Crosscut’s exclusive Bertha page for all the news and commentary about Seattle’s most famous underground machine.

John Stang is a longtime Inland Northwest newspaper reporter who earned a Masters of Communications in Digital Media degree at the University of Washington. He can be reached by writing editor@crosscut.com.


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 7 p.m. Inappropriate

Is STP capitalized well-enough to pay the overruns? I doubt very much if its partners (e.g. Hitachi Zosen) are on the hook. But what is the answer? Is STP judgment-proof? i.e. sure you get a judgment but the liable party doesn't have the money.

I heard a theory that all the tunnel building folks -- worldwide -- will chip in and make sure that the Tunnel gets finished. Interesting but I wouldn't bet on it. Why would they? Protect the possibility of future projects? Why bother? There is always a gullible politician around.

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 10:46 p.m. Inappropriate

Well keep in mind that Bertha is still in its warranty period and is responsible for the repairs. I'm certain that there will be lawyers arguing over the responsibilities of the different parties to this contract long after Bertha has completed its work.

I don't think that tunnel building people will chip in. That said, this is the highest profile TBM project in the world today. No TBM manufacturer or major tunneling contractor wants this project to fail. I do think contrary to your statement, a major failure or major cost over run will be damper on the use of a mega TBM in the same way. At present, an even larger TBM is being built to tunnel under a river in St Petersburg in Russia. A major failure of Bertha will set the industry back in the same way that the Big Dig in Boston for almost a decade.

acbytesla

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 11:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Boring under a river seems far less risky than boring under 100 year old buildings and skyscrapers.

Posted Tue, Apr 22, 10:22 a.m. Inappropriate

And s/he's back! If you don't work for some entity involved in this debacle, I do urge you to gather up all your supportive comments and seek very well compensated employment with one of them or their public relations providers. You appear to really passionately believe in your positions, and as such should be a treasure to those folks.

I can only hope that the major failure of "Bertha" (better Bubba) that is already occurring and will worsen in time sets back the tunneling fans around here for a good long time. Let other countries take the risks inherent in tunneling projects -- particularly those that are "THE BIGGEST/LONGEST/WHATEVER SUPERLATIVE IN THE WORLD," and waste their money.

This project, and any like it, is a waste and a giveaway to the developers and the politicians in their pockets. I won't like going to work over surface streets, but I'll be comforted that eventually the pure stupidity of this project will be recognized.

mspat

Posted Tue, Apr 22, 4:04 p.m. Inappropriate

WOW!!! With all respect, I find your attitude to be shocking. I am not passionately in favor of this project. What I am is in favor of moving forward and getting things done. That is why I am so shocked at your attitude. While I can understand that you were against this project at the beginning. Many people were, but to hope that the project fails and costs our state significant amounts of money just because someone other than you benefits from it seems incredibly selfish. Sort of like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

acbytesla

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 9:48 p.m. Inappropriate

Huh. How much does STP have in profit before they burn it up and call it quits? How much of the projected job profit will this hole eat up? 1/3? 1/2? 3/4? Inquiring minds want to know.

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 11:03 p.m. Inappropriate

You ask for transparency on an underground project?

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 10:08 p.m. Inappropriate

Lest we forget in all this drama and hand-wringing by "expert" engineers and selfless, dedicated public servants that the tunnel option was and remains a terrible solution for the waterfront...most expensive...least capacity, etc., etc.

Even if Bertha coughed to life tomorrow and finished the tunnel by next Friday our fearless cabal of movers, shakers and blue-ribbon committee leaders would have spent an extra 2+ billion dollars to reduce the capacity through the area by 30 to 50 thousand cars a day, plus losing a bypass for downtown and access to the core, Ballard and West Seattle.

If you think about it, instead of another barrage of feel-good articles like this one, and providing an exclusive showcase page for Bertha press releases, shouldn't some journalistic type person be writing about people getting into some serious trouble over this?

Just axing?

jmrolls

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 10:48 p.m. Inappropriate

I think your comment is 100 percent wrong. That said, nobody likes the delay.

acbytesla

Posted Tue, Apr 22, 8:38 a.m. Inappropriate

No, the comment is 100 percent right. The tunnel remains a stupid decision -- not a transportation project but a "beautification" project that reduces capacity, is much less safe and exorbitant even without the major problems and delays it has already run into. It is also right that we have all these reporters and proponents lapping up the the latest feel-good projections about when "Bertha" (sexism anyone?) will restart, and no one digging into the cast of characters -- their experience with other major projects that went outrageously over budget -- and the actual costs, for instance, how many are currently on payroll and doing virtually nothing of use while this debacle sits idle.

As for fault, you can bet -- warranty or not -- that taxpayers will foot the lion's share of the bill. That's just the way it is with public projects, and government will find itself vastly out-lawyered.

Posted Tue, Apr 22, 4:08 p.m. Inappropriate

It barely reduce capacity. Those that exited on Seneca and Western will exit near the stadiums and drive on a large multi lane boulevard and their delay to their destination is likely to be only a few minutes.

acbytesla

Posted Tue, Apr 22, 12:29 a.m. Inappropriate

Suspension bridge that fell down in Tacoma, Hood Canal bridge that washed out to sea, being-rebuilt Lake Washington bridge that sank,draw bridges bent out of shape, defective pontoons for the new SR-420 bridge and now SR-99 tunnel. Does it never end?

richardw

Posted Tue, Apr 22, 4:10 p.m. Inappropriate

Nope, any infrastructure that goes up, can come down.

acbytesla

Posted Tue, Apr 22, 4:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Your excuses for abject incompetence are typical Seattler putz.

Wells

Posted Tue, Apr 22, 8:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Chalk it up to a stroke of good fortune. The machine is close to the water, so it can be removed from the earth and shipped off and resold.
Since they have the viaducts to nowhere, a short 1000' tunnel to nowhere works too.

Posted Tue, Apr 22, 12:22 p.m. Inappropriate

Dudes: This is a mechanical problem. I realize that any excuse will do to pile on about mismanagement, lack of vision, corruption, graft, and what have you, but your basic argument is that the car broke down because you didn't approve of the direction it was driving in. Obviously, that's a silly premise. Physics is not civics. And by the way, where are your constructive alternative solutions and the grassroots support you're building for them? Or, alternatively, some tangible proof of claims like "a giveaway to the developers and the politicians in their pockets"? That would make for interesting reading. But nah, it's easier to whine with the same old bunch of syncophants as your Greek chorus. Have fun with that.

Jen27

Posted Tue, Apr 22, 4:51 p.m. Inappropriate

The alternative is in the FEIS: Box Cut-Cover Tunnel/Seawall. The completed 1000' of the bore tunnel can be directed to the Box Cut-Cover and that type tunnel finished to its portal near Pike Street. The Box Cut-Cover Tunnel/Seawall studies were mostly complete by 2006, but were neither released nor reviewed for public consideration during the 2007 voter referendum. Two additional cut-cover tunnel designs were studied after the referendum, but the Box Cut-Cover was the only one that could be constructed while the AWV remained in place, thus least disruptive. My sense is that Wsdot only intended to replace the AWV with another just like it and gambled in 2007 that voters would approve. Wsdot also rigged the surface street study options after the referendum. As few as 9 to 11 stoplights is possible, but Wsdot only studied options with 27 to 30 stoplights.

The bore tunnel will undermine building foundations above, as far north as Virginia, slowly over time and all at once in a earthquake bring many down with a death toll in the hundreds even thousands. The Box Cut-Cover Tunnel/Seawall stabilizes waterfront soils, but it will cost more and its construction more disruptive to the new tourist trap waterfront which is about as inspiring as the nauseatingly pitiful Sculpture Park. But you're just another Seattle kissass who'll do or say anything to feel like you belong.

Wells

Posted Tue, Apr 22, 12:59 p.m. Inappropriate

Actually, I think it is about the financial risk of tunneling. How much financial loss will the contractor take, and continue working?

"The state has taken the position that problems with the tunnel won't allow STP to bill taxpayers for cost overruns." If that was STPs postion too, that would instill more confidence.

"Trepanier said the state's contract with STP appears to guard the extra costs from being transferred to the taxpayers."

When talking about the fiduciary responsibility to the public of a billion dollars, one would want to hear "absolutely guards", not "appears to guard".

Posted Wed, Apr 23, 8:56 a.m. Inappropriate

You're right, and you're going to hear a lot more of that hedging language before this is all said and done. That's because the issue of who pays is headed to court where it will be fiercely fought at high cost for a VERY long time. In the end, I dread the outcome, I'm pretty sure that the public will pay, and pay, and pay, and our children will pay, and our grandchildren, and our great-grandchildren--they will all pay. Meanwhile the politicians and developers involved in the cabal that came up with this terrible plan will be retired in luxury until they die, leaving their obscene gains from this to their descendants.

mspat

Posted Tue, Apr 22, 9:05 p.m. Inappropriate

"...laid off roughly 60 employees, but still has 300 people working." 300 people doing WHAT?

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »