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Bertha ready for repairs. But what about a viaduct closure?

Bertha in the access pit. Credit: David Kroman

The builders of the waterfront tunnel said Monday that they will move ahead this spring with repairs to the stalled Bertha tunneling machine.

A little earlier in the day, though, the City Council was asking questions about what would happen if the Alaskan Way Viaduct had to be closed for months with the tunnel project still unfinished. The Seattle Department of Transportation said it’s working on an alternative transportation plan to implement if the viaduct were closed for more than three months.

At the work site near Main Street, Seattle Tunnel Partner’s Chris Dixon and the Washington State Department of Transportation’s Matt Preedy held a press conference just feet from where Bertha lies at the bottom of a 120 feet deep access pit.

Preedy and Dixon confirmed that the task of removing the broken pieces of the Bertha tunnel boring machine is, in and of itself, an unprecedented project.

Still, despite skepticism that Bertha could even make it into the access pit where it now sits, the machine broke through to the pit Feb. 19. Dixon confirmed that, a few feet before reaching the access pit, the machine had lost the ability to push dig material from the front out of the back, forcing Bertha to push the matter forward, into the access pit. By the time Bertha broke through, crews had been tasked with cleaning out that material from inside the pit, delaying the machine from moving forward enough for cranes to access the cutterhead.

The machine, however, is now in a position to receive its facelift. Crews are currently disconnecting the hundreds of cables and hoses that connect the rotating front to the body of Bertha. They are also doing welding so crews can eventually attach crane hooks.

They will remove the front plate in three pieces, which will expose the 2,000-ton cutterhead drive unit. The crane will lift that piece out and turn it horizontally so repairs can be made to the its broken seals.

Dixon said the team hopes to have the pieces to the surface by the end of this month, repaired by May, and lowered and reassembled by the end of May. In June, he said, crews will reattach all the cables and hoses; in July, they will begin testing the machine; and in August, boring will resume.

Dixon, however, acknowledged that it is possible boring will resume later than August. “This is a very aggressive schedule,” said Dixon. “We still don’t know the full extent of the damages. We’re going to take as long as we need to get it right.”

Hitachi Zosen, the manufacturer, is covering the costs to repair the machine.

Once tunneling begins, Dixon expects it will take 12 months to go the 8,000 feet to the North Portal near Seattle Center. Although he said the machine is capable of moving 6 feet an hour, there will be stoppages of up to a few days every couple hundred feet to ensure the machine is functioning well and that everything is safe.

As for cost overruns and who will be responsible: No word yet.

Dixon said STP will perform a thorough check of the tunnel-boring machine before it proceeds under the viaduct. He expects the machine to perform well and did not express concern that it would break below Alaskan Way again.

Nevertheless, the city council wanted assurance that a plan will be in place for dealing with traffic in the event of a long-term – three months or more – closure of the viaduct, be it a result of an earthquake or any problem created by the tunneling.

Earlier Monday morning, the question at SDOT’s briefing to the Seattle City Council was “the big IF.” “In the event that we had to close the viaduct and Alaskan Way for a long period of time, what would we need to plan for?” posed SDOT’s Scott Kubly. “What is the peak period of traffic we’d need to accommodate?” He went on to say, “That’s ‘if,’ with a capital I and a capital F.”

SDOT introduced its traffic plan Monday for how to redistribute commuters and travelers off of Highway 99. While they do not have an exact number, their hypothetical is 26,000 “seats” need to be diverted from Highway 99 during peak PM hours.

In the report, SDOT estimated that 7,000 of those commuters could be folded into the current grid. Once the Seattle Transportation Benefit District, passed by voters in November, goes into effect in June, additional bus service will accommodate another 3,500 passengers.

In one year – and with the help of intense marketing – SDOT officials believe they could divert an additional 1,000 to 2,000 passengers to alternative transportation means – vanpool, bicycle – while promoting shifts in work times for commuters, to perhaps 11-7 or 6-3 instead of 9-5. Still, only about half of the 26,000 number is accounted for by the second year of the program.

By the end of the second year, the 26,000 seat goal should be accomplished by investing in even more transit.

For most of the council members, the plan was too slow. “If we had to shut it down completely, how can we wait two years to get that in place?” asked Councilmember Mike O’Brien. “How do we get from a two-year ramp up to six-month ramp up?”

Councilmember Kshama Sawant jumped on SDOT: “The reality is that people are already panicked about [the viaduct closing]. I don’t get a sense of urgency from this plan. Closing the viaduct would be a disastrous scenario and enormously chaotic. I don’t think a multi-year program is in any way possible.”

SDOT’s Kubly said, “There’s really a limited amount of additional transit that can be added that quickly.” However he did suggest that the city might continue to use buses slated for retirement by Metro. “This might be a situation where we keep some of those older buses. You might bring on used vehicles or emergency procurement.” Councilmember Sally Bagshaw suggested it would be OK to use buses with different color themes if buses could be brought in from elsewhere.

According to Victor Obesso, deputy manager for planning and customer services with King County Metro, the current fleet is about 1,400 hundred buses. Each bus operates for 12 to 14 years and every year Metro replaces between 100 and 300 busses.

“The question of operating more fleet is how much maintenance for what cost,” said Obesso. He said that Metro does have a certain amount of flexibility to respond. “With maintenance, buses could work for one to three years longer.” He said the agency would have the capability to divert resources from the middle of the day to rush hour and could procure newer buses faster than normal. Preparing for this summer’s bus expansion, said Obesso, Metro will be able to increase bus transit by 10 percent in a matter of months.

But could they accommodate 12,000 additional transit riders downtown in the six-month timeline council members would like? “It’s gonna take a bit of time,” Obesso said. “You can’t work drivers 80 hours a week. Realistically it’s a couple years into it before you’ve got enough people.”

The other issue is cost. According to SDOT’s estimates, adding that much additional transit would cost over $50 million. But as to who would cover that, Kubly took a line common to the city’s waterfront projects: “We haven’t started having those conversations.” He did say, though, that officials would work to ensure “the city paid for as little of it as possible.”

Council president Tim Burgess said SDOT has dealt with sticky situations before. Regarding the city’s ability to deal with a viaduct closure, he told Kubly, “You’ve got good creative minds and I’m confident you’ll figure it out.”

Correction: March 13th, 2014

An earlier version referred to expansion last summer, when it should have read next summer.

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