Bertha: Wasting money while the Viaduct risks grow?

Hang in there, buddy. Credit: 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.

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