Bertha at rest: How much will the delays cost?

Pondering the roadblocks to progress in Seattle.
Bertha Knight Landes, namesake of our stalled tunnel machine, was Seattle's first and only female mayor.

Bertha Knight Landes, namesake of our stalled tunnel machine, was Seattle's first and only female mayor. Credit: Seattle Municipal Archives

Poor Bertha. She deserved better. Bertha Knight Landes, that is, Seattle’s first and only woman mayor.

In fact, Bertha Knight Landes was the first female mayor of a major American city. She served from 1926 to 1928. Prior to that, she was president of the City Council and involved in many good government organizations in town. She ran because the corrupt city needed a good “housekeeper,” and she tried to clean up by cracking down on crooked cops, illegal gambling and bootleggers. After two years, she was beaten for reelection by a newcomer named Frank Edwards, who was a shill for the business community. Bertha’s career was halted abruptly by political conditions on the ground in Seattle, a city with a history of being of two minds about vice.

We haven’t elected a woman mayor since, but naming the world’s largest tunnel-boring machine after her seemed appropriate. “Bertha” is synonymous with “big,” which the tunnel project is. Bertha was also supposed to represent enlightened progress in a city whose transportation system needed some good housekeeping. The boring machine would core out the muck and glacial remains under the old waterfront and dig a foundation for Seattle’s new face to the world. Traffic would flow smoothly and silently and out of sight, the Berlin Wall of viaducts would be torn down and downtown would flourish. We debated the digging risks and how to pay for them, but for a majority of voters, Bertha seemed the best path forward.

Only now, a year into the project’s launch, Bertha the Boring Machine is stuck. She needs major repairs. Until they happen, the big machine is dead in the mud, unable to burrow her way forward. The tunnel diggers have to rescue her by digging an enormous pit so they can access her front end and remove the cutterhead and repair the main bearing that turns her cutters. It cost $80 million to build Bertha; it will cost at least $125 million to rescue her. 

Bertha has many moving parts, and once she’s dismantled in situ, repair crews will have a much better idea of how to fix her — it could be more than bearing problems that brought her to a standstill last December. At best, she’ll be more than a year late finishing the job. At worst, she can’t be fixed. Things look so bad that even the state’s secretary of transportation will no longer guarantee Bertha will finish the job. 

Bertha’s crisis has consequences. She’s a critical moving part in a massive Seattle makeover. Digging the tunnel allows the Alaskan Way Viaduct to be replaced. That opens up the central waterfront for a redevelopment estimated to cost more than $1 billion. Projects include a new seawall, new surface transportation routes across the waterfront, an expansion of Pike Place Market that connects to an expanded Seattle Aquarium, links to the refurbished Mercer Corridor, plus an eventual makeover of the ferry terminal at Colman Dock. Bertha’s progress is key to all of it coming together. 


The other Bertha. Credit: WSDOT

It’s fair to ask questions in the meantime. How costly will delays be, and will they proliferate throughout the complex web of projects? Have the city and state bitten off more than they can chew? While the cause of Bertha’s paralysis is not yet fully known, the costs of her rescue and delay are mounting.

And who will ultimately pay when the bill comes in? Olympia has said that Seattle taxpayers should be on the hook for cost overruns, but the language of the legislation might not be enforceable. In the meantime, the Washington State Department of Transportation and Seattle Tunnel Partners, the contractor, are arguing over blame. 

Poor Bertha. Like her namesake, her progress has been blocked. All around there is anxiety, bickering, unanswered questions. Even once she’s done, Bertha’s biggest challenge might prove to be digging her way through all the lawsuits that surely lie ahead.
 
This article was originally featured in the July edition of the Seattle Magazine. 

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Aug 1, 6:55 a.m. Inappropriate


And who will ultimately pay when the bill comes in? Olympia has said that Seattle taxpayers should be on the hook for cost overruns, but the language of the legislation might not be enforceable.

Not quite.

There are 9 (or so) separate projects that together comprise the SR-99 AWV replacement and roadway improvements work. The $1.4 billion contract between WSDOT and Seattle Tunnel Partners is the largest single contract in those related projects.

The state legislature adopted a statute in April, 2009 limiting the state's exposure. The state only will pay $2.8 BLN towards all of those 9 projects.

Who is on the hook for amounts over that $2.8 BLN to complete those 9 projects? That is not certain, although it is certain how any such additional amounts would be obtained. What that 2009 state statute says is that if a LID is formed the Seattle-area property owners benefited by those downtown highway projects can be assessed for WSDOT's costs over the $2.8 BLN cap.

Want some details about that unique statute (technically it was an amendment sponsored by Judy Clibborn to ESSB 5768, at the behest of Frank Chopp)? Months after all the hearings on ESSB 5768, Clibborn's amendment with its cost-shifting provisions was introduced (on April 22, 2009):

http://www.apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=5768&year;=2009

Here is that law, as enacted; ESSB 5768 now is codified as RCW 47.01.402(6)(b):

( http://www.apps.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=47.01.402 ).

A local government with LID-forming authority now is perfectly free to form a LID for the purposes of paying the amounts over $2.8 billion that WSDOT racks up. No vote of the people would be required, and no change in state law would need to be made if, say, the Port of Seattle commissioners decided to form a LID for the purpose of generating money for WSDOT to pay to contractors. The Port commissioners could use the Port's existing statutory authority (RCW 53.08.050) to form a new LID and begin the assessments as soon as WSDOT says it’ll need additional money beyond the $2.8 billion cap. Those assessments would start going out to hundreds of property owners, the ones that Lloyd Hara deems have properties that have increased assessed values due to the projects.

It's a highly unconventional megaproject financing scheme. Moreover, it was designed to be as opaque as possible to the public.

crossrip

Posted Tue, Aug 26, 11:37 a.m. Inappropriate

This is why I now vote against every single levy. It's obvious that the powers that be in Seattle will always, always find the money for what they truly want. Therefore, there's no need to actually vote for any of it.

NotFan

Posted Mon, Aug 4, 2:31 p.m. Inappropriate

I'd like see a segment on "60 Minutes" about how this really happened.

jmrolls

Posted Thu, Aug 21, 6:34 p.m. Inappropriate

I find this so very interesting. Knute's column of course is designed to spread fear that Bertha cannot be repaired. This is not likely. But of course anything is possible.

Bertha can run at the present time. In fact, she'll have to so she can bore through the pit walls so they can remove the cutterhead and replace the seals and the bearing. They are equipped to repair or replace anything in Bertha including the cutterhead. That would mean a longer repair time, because a new one would have to be made and shipped to Seattle, but it could be done. However no one actually believes the cutterhead has been damaged, in fact,they don't believe that the bearing has been damaged. which would become damaged before the cutterhead.

While it is unfortunate that Bertha's seals have been damaged, it is a good thing that this was caught at this point. Of course anything can go wrong and it's easy to imagine the worst, the reality is that it is very likely that Bertha will be repaired and will be able to finish her tunnel drive.

acbytesla

Posted Fri, Aug 22, 6:50 p.m. Inappropriate

Your reply is designed to try to put a lid on the very real HOPE that Bertha cannot be repaired. Your spin is not working, abc.

Bertha is going to forever be berthed below, stuck.

Posted Tue, Aug 26, 10:33 a.m. Inappropriate

Whether it gets done or not is idle speculation. The important question is how much it costs if it gets done, when it gets done, or if it fails, how much the public eats, which is the cost minus the performance bond, which could easily get close to a billion dollars lost.

The contractor is hardly in it for a job done or money back deal, that is a fact. A huge monetary risk is with the public. For what? To create a transportation tunnel underground to save real estate. The cut and cover was the prudent and responsible choice to risk the public's money on, IMHO.

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