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Bertha: Wasting money while the Viaduct risks grow?

Guest Opinion: The passage of time makes the danger of earthquake increase. Does anybody have a backup plan if we can't get out of this hole?
Alaskan Way Viaduct ramp

Alaskan Way Viaduct ramp Credit: Steve Mohundro/Flickr

Hang in there, buddy.

Hang in there, buddy. Photo: Bill Lucia

Have you ever let your mind wander to the question of what happens to Alaskan Way Viaduct traffic if an earthquake occurs, making it unusable before the waterfront tunnel is complete? In such a case, the closure would be indefinite, cutting off or rerouting tens of thousands of daily trips.

If the tunnel were almost finished when a quake struck, perhaps we could tough it out for a few months or so. But here we are, having dug only one-ninth of the total drilling length and we already appear to be losing significant time, no matter what officials say about actually opening the tunnel on time. That’s extra time for an earthquake to happen.

Lucky for us, the stoppage is in the shallowest section of the tunnel, so Bertha, the tunnel-boring machine, is accessible by a 130-foot shaft for repairs. There’s at least a reasonable hope that the project can be restarted. Washington state Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson has said, however, that she wants everyone to remember it’s possible the tunnel can’t be finished. And we still have eight-ninths of the tunnel to drill, including all of the deepest boring under downtown buildings. Bertha will be inaccessible from the surface for much of that stretch.

If any serious stoppage happens down there, kiss the tunnel goodbye. And by that time, most of the funds will be spent, not available for any sort of Plan B.

What happens then if an earthquake or anything else — including some new assessment of the Viaduct's safety — forces the shutdown of the Alaskan Way Viaduct? Immediately, we will be left with only I-5 and city streets to move traffic north and south. This would back traffic up on the whole freeway system, affecting people and businesses throughout the Puget Sound region. At that point, repairs to the Viaduct may be impossible; they are almost certainly going to be astronomically expensive.

Even as we wonder about any below ground progress with Bertha, let's go back to the surface and take another look at the un-retrofitted Viaduct we have today. WSDOT isn't doing any new retrofitting of the Viaduct; it doesn't want to spend the money. Despite an upcoming project that includes replacing some cracked roadway sections, the department has largely limited itself to monitoring the Viaduct for any signs of structural deterioration and maintaining an alarm system for when an earthquake comes.

Then — assuming that the technology works — gates will close off traffic in order to save as many lives as possible among those intending to use the Viaduct at that very moment. I don't know about you, but I would be putting on the brakes at the first sign of shaking anyway. Still, who knows how an actual disaster would unfold?

So, I go back to my concern about a Plan B. After a major earthquake, what happens to the vehicle trips that residents, businesses and everyone else, including emergency responders, need to make? What sort of congestion would we face? And where would the money come from for necessary improvements if this scenario comes to pass? 

Gov. Chris Gregoire took a calculated risk in deciding to pursue a tunnel while keeping the Viaduct open. Her bet was built upon a timetable, probably optimistic. But, state leaders are responsible for making calculations that fit the changing reality.

WSDOT and our political leaders are gambling with our lives, our livelihoods and our transportation system. Should we perhaps consider ways to cover the potential failure of the tunnel project? Maybe we should at least stop spending money on work at the north end of the tunnel until we know that Bertha can make it there. Lawmakers aren't going to have much sympathy for spending new money on a massive new project if $2 billion has already been spent on an uncompleted tunnel.

A potential Transportation Armageddon surely demands serious consideration: a Plan B, maybe even plans C and D. Otherwise, no matter how lucky we are with traffic on the Viaduct during a massive earthquake, there’s one certain casualty: the region's economy.

Arthur M. Skolnik, FAIA has long been active in urban planning and historic preservation projects in the region. He can be reached at editor@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 8:44 a.m. Inappropriate

"This would back traffic up on the whole freeway system"
That's arguable.

archie

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 10:06 a.m. Inappropriate

Last week a motorcycle crash on the viaduct jammed I-5 and SR99 clear up into Snohomish County for more than five hours. There can be no argument about that sad fact.

Posted Fri, Aug 22, 6:53 p.m. Inappropriate

What do you think that would do to a tunnel? Force out incoming vehicles, onto the city streets, and jam downtown for far more than 5 hours.

And downtown can't afford that kind of loss of business.

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 9:49 a.m. Inappropriate

We probably would have been halfway done by now if we were using workers with picks, drills, and shovels.

talisker

Posted Tue, Aug 19, 12:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Sure we would...rolling on the floor laughing. The first tunnel ever built underneath a river, the Thames tunnel about a quarter of a mile long took 14 years. A bigger tunnel was just built underneath the Thames twice as long took about 6 months. Yea sure.

acbytesla

Posted Fri, Aug 22, 6:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Both of you miss the better point: we could have built an entirely new viaduct by now, and spent far less than the loss we've already endured, not to mention the further over budget amounts this fiasco will continue to require. A new viaduct would have been completed, paid for in full.

Instead ...

Posted Sat, Aug 23, 5:51 a.m. Inappropriate

"Could have, would have, should have". The time for what we "could have" done passed a long time ago. Whining about it now does little good. Or are you 'practicing', secretly hoping that you will be able to tell everyone 'I told you so'? It's easy to rant about the road not taken while others actually work trying to get things done.

While Bertha is the largest TBM ever built (for now) Larger Mega TBMs are not new. Since the year 2000, ALL 23 TBMs built over 14 meters in diameter have successfully completed their tunnel drives, most ahead of schedule. They have been so successful that New Zealand and China just launched two more of these behemoths and 4 more are being built for projects including two larger than Bertha.

It is disappointing that Bertha's seals failed and this requires a major intervention, but the fact is that very few tunnel projects are abandoned and not completed.

It would be a mistake at this point to abandon Bertha. There is every reason to believe that she can and will be repaired and complete the tunnel drive. This may end up costing as much as 200 million dollars more than what was expected. No doubt, that is disappointing. Still, a 200 million dollar over run in a 4 billion dollar project is not a catastrophe. Abandoning the project at this point would certainly be far more expensive and disrupting.

Go Bertha!!

acbytesla

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 10:34 a.m. Inappropriate

Art's still upset that the Viaduct isn't being retained, from a historic preservation standpoint! Hooweee...

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 10:56 a.m. Inappropriate

Timely and important piece about a possibility that WSDOT and SDOT and any other transportation entity should already have plans to address.

Even without the kind of event rickbarrett cites, I spent 50 minutes in traffic twice two weeks ago. Once getting from that overhead traffic advisory sign at SODO to past the bottleneck coming out of the northbound tunnel. The second time getting from 4th Ave. S. near the Salvation Army store to 2nd and Blanchard, and then only by going up 1st instead of 4th. There was no accident or other untoward occurrence either time.

As the politicians kept telling us, the whole purported reason for the tunnel was because they consider the viaduct vulnerable in the event of an earthquake. So to think that there is no plan B is just another signal of how out of touch the decision makers are and how little the tunnel has to do with safety at all.

The writer poses questions the politicians and WSDOT should answer right now. I expect Bertha will never complete the tunnel, and I'll celebrate its entombment, but even if I was a tunnel fan, we should still have a plan in place for what to do if an earthquake occurs and damages the viaduct. This is only basic and prudent planning. I'd like to say I'm shocked that apparently there is no plan B, but I'm really not shocked. This is just what I expect from the politicians and WSDOT.

mspat

Posted Tue, Aug 19, 8:42 p.m. Inappropriate

Why would you expect that Bertha will never complete the tunnel mspat? Are you a tunnel engineer? Do you have any idea the percentage of TBMs that have totally failed and were unable to complete their drives in the last 50 years? 40 years? 30 years? 20 years? 10? Not very many. If Bertha fails it will be the biggest tunnel construction failure in the last 100 years. It will not only be costly to the city, but Dragados, Tutor Perrini, not to mention Hitachi Zosen. Everything is being done to make sure that the repairs ensure that Bertha will be able to continue and complete the drive because the whole tunneling industry is watching this project. The deep bore tunnel project solves a problem in city after city all over the world. We are doing what Madrid did with the M30 tunnel and that is reclaiming a large chunk of the city for park and public land and bury a major city arterial underground.

acbytesla

Posted Wed, Aug 20, 7:34 a.m. Inappropriate

" If Bertha fails it will be the biggest tunnel construction failure in the last 100 years. It will not only be costly to the city, but Dragados, Tutor Perrini, not to mention Hitachi Zosen."

Those assertions are incorrect.

It wouldn't be costly to the city . . . WSDOT contracted for the services of the prime contractor. It wouldn't be costly to D and T-P either. They formed a joint venture (Seattle Tunnel Partners), and if the jv goes tu then D and T-P simply walk. Their liability is limited absolutely. Hitachi doesn't care . . . it will be able to claim that the abandonment of the proposed tunneling is not due to a defect in the machine, so it will get paid.

Those are the facts, Jack.

crossrip

Posted Sun, Aug 24, 10:47 a.m. Inappropriate

You're mistaken crossrip. These companies would lose money even though they would probably not face bankruptcy because of it. They would also lose reputation. Yes it may be a joint venture but cities world wide will know that it was Dragados, Tutor Perrini and Hitachi Zosen were the companies responsible for such a fiasco. There are other tunneling companies and manufacturers. With this on Hitachi's record, would you buy the next Mega-TBM manufactured by Hitachi? Or would you use Herrenkenecht, Robbins, NFM, Kawasaki, Mitsubishi or CBT?

acbytesla

Posted Wed, Aug 20, 9:17 a.m. Inappropriate

Maybe I expect Bertha will never complete the tunnel because I am a voodoo priestess, or for any other reason I choose. Happily I am not accountable to you. Please feel free to throw around all the statistics in favor of tunnels that you can think of. I can agree to disagree.

What I'm curious about is why you appear to be so passionate in defense of this project and tunnels in general. I certainly respect your right to feel how you feel and believe what you believe, but I am repeatedly startled by the fervid tone of your posts favoring tunnels.

mspat

Posted Wed, Aug 20, 9:19 a.m. Inappropriate

My reply was to acbytesla, not crossrip, but that's how the software placed it.

mspat

Posted Wed, Aug 20, 6:47 p.m. Inappropriate

You're right mspat. You're not accountable to me. Reading your posts I think of Teddy Roosevelt.

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

As for my passionate defense of this project. I really don't think we have much choice at this point. But I am comforted that 95 percent projects get completed and frankly tunnel projects with some exceptions have been delivering fairly well. Tunneling technology has improved so significantly, particularly over the last twenty years that tunnels are the transportation infrastructure choice now more than ever.

I'd rather have a tunnel than a hulking bridge. Out of sight if at all possible. These projects aren't the Big Dig. TBMs have changed that.

They are cheaper and more efficient than they ever were in the past. Check out the SMART tunnel in Kuala Lumpur. Fantastic dual purpose highway and Storm run-off dual 14 meter tunnels for monsoon season. You can see a couple of great PBS and Discovery Channel documentaries on the SMART tunnel.

My attitude about this project. "Git her done".

acbytesla

Posted Sat, Aug 23, 3:19 p.m. Inappropriate

Mspat, I also wonder the reason for the impassioned abctesla comments. My guess is that she works as an intern or admin assistant for one of the engineers/engineering firms or WSDOT and is inspired very deeply by her devotion to the brilliant engineers she feels are so capable of putting Humpty Dumpty (Bertha) back together again.

Posted Sat, Aug 23, 8:03 p.m. Inappropriate

Really commonsense? You think I'm a female intern for one of the engineering firms? WRONG.

I have absolutely nothing to do with this project. I don't work for anyone or any company attached to this project. I am looking forward to the day that Bertha breaks through at the Gates foundation which have faith will happen.

acbytesla

Posted Fri, Aug 22, 6:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Great. When Bertha fails, we'll be famous for having the biggest tunnel (and highway) construction failure in the last 100 years, combined with being the first downtown US city to suffer the worst traffic in the entire world.

Posted Sat, Aug 23, 5:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Oh my, the sky is falling..the sky is falling!! Bertha hasn't failed yet and two, the traffic isn't that bad or wouldn't be. I guess you haven't been any where.

acbytesla

Posted Sun, Aug 24, 8:20 a.m. Inappropriate

"I spent 50 minutes in traffic twice two weeks ago"

That may be the funniest argument I have heard yet in regards to anything.

You poor thing! I'm sure your faced turned fifty shades of beet red for every minute you were forced to deal with (gasp) other people and goods being moved around.

I really wonder how someone can have such an expectation that they will be able to move about freely at his/her own leisure in a dynamically growing city. I know many, many people who commute much longer and they don't seem to complain as much.

jeffro

Posted Sun, Aug 24, 9:17 a.m. Inappropriate

Not complaints, statements of fact. And no my face didn't turn "fifty shades of beet red for every minute" I was "forced to deal with other people and goods being moved." Instead I enjoyed the sunshine and NPR, although on the trip to Blanchard I was a little anxious because I had a volunteer commitment and was worried I'd be late.

As to the rest of what you have to say, I'm sorry if you feel that one cannot, or shoould not, have an expectation of moving freely around the city. I still have that expectation and likely will continue to hold it. I'm having trouble what you may think my expectations should be. Of course, you're entitled to your opinions, as I am to mine. It would be nice if you had more to add than sneering attacks on others.

I also note that neither you nor acbytesla addressed the point of my original comment: why don't WSDOT, SDOT, or any other transportation entities that may be involved have a plan for what we will do should the viaduct become unusable before the tunnel is completed? I think this is the point of the original piece and I don't see any answers so far.

mspat

Posted Wed, Aug 27, 6:04 p.m. Inappropriate

The point of a city to facilitate and enhance commerce, not to discourage commerce. Mobility is also a major component of a thriving city.

Mobility is a major part of commerce. Wasting time in traffic jams is money down the sewer.

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 12:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Just think, had there been competent leadership in place at the time for the earthquake, the Viaduct would've been declared unsafe and closed, and Federal money would've paid for a replacement. Which would be a better viaduct, the only sensible option...

orino

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 1:15 p.m. Inappropriate

It's not that simple. While we the Nisqually earthquake was declared a disaster by FEMA - not by a long shot would they have paid for a replacement viaduct. First it would have to have been proven that it was not a viable structure - NOW, and because of the quake - not because it is at risk for future damage. Also, FEMA would do a risk analysis and could determine that a via duct on fill in an earthquake zone is not a good idea.

Treker

Posted Tue, Aug 19, 12:07 a.m. Inappropriate

So exactly how is a bored tunnel below or at sea level in an earthquake zone a better idea?

Posted Tue, Aug 19, 9:42 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm not an engineer - so maybe someone else can chime in here. But the tunnel will go through the glacial till below the fill - yes?

Treker

Posted Tue, Aug 19, 12:02 p.m. Inappropriate

The tunnel is in fill and Sand down near Yessler. It's about 80ft below sea level and then it starts to rise. At which point it will enter glacial til.

GaryP

Posted Tue, Aug 19, 12:04 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm more than comfortable with it. How do we know that any of our roads are safe? We trust our lives to engineers every day. It's getting done. Time to move on

acbytesla

Posted Sat, Aug 23, 8:07 p.m. Inappropriate

Why don't you ask the Turks, that commonsense? They have bored 3 tunnels under the Bospurus in the last couple of years. An area that is below the sea floor in one of the most active earthquake zones in the world. At least 20 times more active than Seattle.

acbytesla

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 1:52 p.m. Inappropriate

My how soon we forget.

Up until 2008 the WSDOT still considered a refurbished or replaced viaduct as a viable option. The cost of any of the elevated solutions, including a new one with seismic protections, was determined to be LESS than the cost of the proposed tunnel according to T.Y. Lin, the department’s own engineering consultant.

Funny the only constant in this entire joke on tax paying commuters is that the viaduct has stood firm (even through the Nisqually) doing its job carrying 110,000 vehicles a day…double the capacity of the tunnel providing it ever gets built.

This project was never about transportation or safety…it's about amenities for developers to increase property values.

jmrolls

Posted Tue, Aug 19, 8:21 a.m. Inappropriate

Yep, once the viaduct is gone all that real estate on 1st Ave and Western became way more valuable as "view" property.

Of course the city benefits as well as the property value goes up, so do the tax collections on that property.

GaryP

Posted Fri, Aug 22, 7:02 p.m. Inappropriate

The city will only benefit if the downtown crush of traffic doesn't materialize. The tunnel will carry fewer vehicles than the current viaduct does today.

Exactly how does that make any sense to the property developers?

Posted Sat, Aug 23, 10:13 a.m. Inappropriate


THE WATERFRONT HAS ALREADY BEEN DEVELOPED. There are still a few old buildings between Yesler and Madison which will probably be knocked down and replaced, but if you'd open your eyes you'd see a mile long parade of brand new buildings from Madison to Broad Street. There are going to be no new buildings built in the footprint of the viaduct. It will be parks and plazas for the waterfront.

The developers have already MADE MOST OF THEIR MONEY!

You people who scream "corruption" must have corrupt souls yourselves to see it everywhere. I pity you when you talk to St. Peter.

Anandakos

Posted Mon, Aug 25, 9:36 a.m. Inappropriate

Once the viaduct is gone, the rent rates will rise to reflect the new un-obscured views from those buildings. The owners will now make more money.

GaryP

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 6:29 p.m. Inappropriate

We had a referendum a few years ago where we could vote whether we wanted a tunnel and also whether we wanted a rebuilt viaduct. BOTH ended in defeat. The argument to rebuild the viaduct is not a viable option, and it is unfortunate it is resurfacing again here. In addition to building it on fill, the fact that we shouldn't be building mega projects for roads (versus transit) and the fact that it would be massive (for safety reasons) and therefore ugly as hell, all proved the rebuild idea was a terrible idea. The only sensible option then, and now, is a surface option. People's Waterfront Coalition predicted all that is going on now, in addition to predicting that a tunnel without exits in downtown would still require traffic revisions downtown, as well as the toll will divert people. We should have spent this money on traffic revisions and further light rail to West Seattle. It was stupid we let this project begin. It is absolutely insane that we are allowing this project to continue. Ugh!!!

dintystew

Posted Tue, Aug 19, 8:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Unfortunately there are no levers of control for regular citizens in this discussion. The Sound Transit board doesn't listen, doesn't care, the developers along the waterfront wanted view property without a major road in front of them. (They'll get the traffic anyway.) The Greenline Monorail which had it been built would have answered that need for mass transist went down in flames.

The tunnel will get finished. It's not rocket science. The only thing that could derail it now would be a major earthquake before it's done creating enough damage that to dig out the tunnel would require enough money that the state didn't have it. But think about the "Big Dig"... grossly overbudget yet finished. These zombie projects will live to eat money until they are finished.

GaryP

Posted Sat, Aug 23, 10:16 a.m. Inappropriate

The "Sound Transit Board" has NOTHING to do with the Deep Bored Tunnel. It was a decision jointly taken by the State and City of Seattle.

You are stunningly poorly informed.

Anandakos

Posted Tue, Aug 19, 11:26 a.m. Inappropriate

Love it or hate it, at least understand the real process. If we don’t Seattle will continue to fall over the furniture with suboptimized, enormously expensive mega-projects that benefit a few at the expense of the rest of us.

Here’s one from Crosscut about that referendum vote that you say determined what WE all wanted.
http://crosscut.com/2009/12/27/seattle-city-hall/18780/Best-2009-How-Jan-Drago-dragooned-Viaduct-solution/

Here’s one from Brewster about the real reasons behind the tunnel selection. http://crosscut.com/2009/03/26/crosscut-blog/18899/When-Chopp-speaks-parse-closely/

The T.Y. Lin report about costs and feasibility is on the WSDOT site.

If an honest vote between an elevated or tunnel solution were held tomorrow the viaduct would win.

jmrolls

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 9:39 p.m. Inappropriate

When they built I-5, or the Seattle Center, they demolished some old stuff.

Seattle requires more North-South arterial capacity and that will require taking of land by eminent domain and demolishing buildings.
Only so much stuff will fit in a limited area, and the buildings have to go for a new transportaion corridor to reflect the increased population and capacity needs.

Posted Tue, Aug 19, 8:28 a.m. Inappropriate

You can build new transportation cooridors without taking over the surface of the city. If you built another freeway N/S you'd ruin any reason to bother going to Seattle. The trick is to move people not cars, and there are a lot of options to do that in the existing space.

GaryP

Posted Tue, Aug 19, 9:58 a.m. Inappropriate

I have never understood why we don't just make Western Ave. and alaska Way both one way streets with 3-4 lanes....already there and easy to do, except for parking issues...

lpatrick

Posted Tue, Aug 19, 12:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Same reason a replacement Viaduct was never a real option, the property owners adjecent to those streets lose money if the streets are busy. So does the city which collects less tax money from property which is worth less than it would be with the tunnel...

It's easy to want expensive projects when you can get them paid with other people's money.

GaryP

Posted Fri, Aug 22, 7:04 p.m. Inappropriate

And how is the bore tunnel a financially acceptable solution? It's the most expensive idea of all.

Posted Tue, Aug 19, 5:18 p.m. Inappropriate

We have been told the Viaduct is structurally unsound. That is certainly easy to believe but has anyone done a survey of buildings in Seattle that do not conform to current seismic codes? it has probably been done but I am going to guess is that there are many more people in offices, parking garages and even houses that are at risk of a earthquake at the 6 or 7 scale than are threatened by a Viaduct failure. At any given minute there are probably no more than 250 individual human beings on the Viaduct. That's not a lot of people and not all of them would die; the Loma Prieta earthquake only killed about 10 people; much bigger viaduct, many more cars.

kieth

Posted Wed, Aug 20, 5:56 p.m. Inappropriate

The nightmare scenario contemplated in this article had a name a few years back: The Surface Option.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Aug 25, 6:53 a.m. Inappropriate

Risks come in various categories:

Deaths from upper deck collapsing onto lower deck.
deaths underneath due to collapse of both decks.
Injuries from both of the above

Damage to adjacent buildings.

Deaths/injuries from exploding concrete projected from compressed reinforcing.

Massive interruption/disruption of traffic through downtown and backed up onto the freeway network...assuming they are not damaged as well.

Disruption to mainland trucking/rail access to Port of Seattle's loading/unloading facilities

Hazardous,oversized and emergency vehicles rerouted through city streets and freeway

Major impact on local/regional economy
.
Art

Posted Mon, Aug 25, 4:09 p.m. Inappropriate

Hearing the reports of Napa's earthquake made me wonder what our regional emergency plans are. Traffic should be a part of the plan. So, I'm glad this article was written because it raises some important questions.

sjenner

Posted Wed, Aug 27, 10:55 a.m. Inappropriate

Till folks get beyond the need to lug 2 or 3 thousand pounds of vehicle every where they go, the tunnel will not improve anything.
My daughter in law commutes every day from downtown Tacoma to downtown Bellevue in an hour. During the commute she reads, sleeps, or fiddles on her tablet. Sound Transit works.

The future of Seattle should not rely on moving private vehicles from point A to point B.

JimBow

Posted Sun, Sep 7, 8:33 a.m. Inappropriate

I watched the Viaduct being built and didn't think it was a good or attractive idea from Day One. With all the above caveats, I'm not sure I'd ever drive the
tunnel. However, the opportunity may never arise in my lifetime- or anyone"s. JG-

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