To make up for costs and delays that a dispute with a labor union caused last summer, the contractor digging the Highway 99 tunnel in downtown Seattle is pressing the state for $17.6 million in additional compensation for the troubled project.
Major mechanical woes with Bertha, the machine boring the tunnel, now promise to delay the project for over a year. Those problems have long since overshadowed last summer's conflict between the contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners, and the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union's Local 19. But deciding who will foot the bill for the labor dispute remains unresolved. Under the current contract terms, WSDOT has agreed to pay Seattle Tunnel Partners $1.4 billion to complete the technically challenging underground roadway project. The contractor's request for more money has the potential to add to that amount.
The standoff between Seattle Tunnel Partners and the ILWU crescendoed when the longshoremen picketed Terminal 46, which is adjacent to the tunnel site, for 28 days during last August and September. The union said its members were entitled to four jobs, on each of two shifts, loading excavated tunnel muck onto barges at the port terminal.
Washington State Department of Transportation and the contractor are negotiating over whether the state should pay some or all of the costs related to the union unrest. The contractor asked WSDOT for the extra compensation and a 32-day schedule extension in four “change order requests” submitted in November and December of last year. Crosscut obtained the documents through a public disclosure request.
Asked if the state could end up paying some or all of the money Seattle Tunnel Partners has requested, a WSDOT spokesperson, Laura Newborn, said: “We are in negotiations right now, so it’s a difficult question to answer.” She also said that WSDOT and Seattle Tunnel Partners are talking directly about the change order requests, not through lawyers or third party negotiators, and that there is currently no timeline for completing the negotiations.
Seattle Tunnel Partners declined to comment on the matter, saying only that they are in negotiations about the change order requests with WSDOT.
An overview of the Highway 99 tunnel site. The muck conveyor (highlighted in yellow) is designed to carry excavated soil from the back of the boring machine to waiting barges at Terminal 46. Image: WSDOT
Correspondence attached to the change order requests offers a glimpse at Seattle Tunnel Partners' readiness to play hardball with the state over contract clauses and money — and WSDOT’s willingness to push back. The still-unsettled disagreement could provide some indication of how the two parties will handle any similar situations that arise in the future. WSDOT officials have pointed repeatedly to the ability of the project's design-build contract to shield taxpayers from cost overruns.
The negotiations about the labor dispute costs are set against the backdrop of Bertha's mechanical problems.
Seattle Tunnel Partners said on Monday that the machine is not expected to start digging again until late March 2015. Bertha has already been at a near standstill since last December. If the March 2015 restart date is accurate, the total length of the delay will be about 16 months. The stoppage is due to problems with Bertha's main bearing assembly. Seattle Tunnel Partners is planning to dig a roughly 11-story deep, 83-foot-wide pit near South Main Street to access and fix the machine. Construction of the pit is scheduled to begin in late May and repairs are slated to get underway in October. In a meeting with The Seattle Times Editorial Board on Tuesday, a representative for the contractor said that the cost to repair Bertha and get the machine digging again could total around $125 million.
The costs Seattle Tunnel Partners earlier included in the change order requests are related to delays and inefficiencies that they say the picket line caused and the agreements that were forged afterward to settle the labor dispute.
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