Bertha repair plan surfaces. Questions about cause of damage and cost disputes linger.

The contractor boring the tunnel releases detailed repair plans and a schedule that shows that digging could resume in March, 2015.
The contractor boring the tunnel releases detailed repair plans and a schedule that shows that digging could resume in March, 2015.

The contractor building the Highway 99 tunnel under downtown Seattle shared a heap of technical information on Monday about repair plans for Bertha. What remains unanswered are questions about what caused the damage that brought the massive boring machine to a standstill and whether the contractor would continue to press the state for additional money to cover repair and delay costs.

A repair schedule presented by the contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners, at a news conference on Monday showed that the 57.5-foot diameter machine would be mining again in late March, 2015. If that schedule holds, the machine will have been stopped for nearly 16 months by the time digging resumes. Bertha first encountered mechanical problems last December, further investigation revealed that a seal system protecting the machine's main bearing had failed.

The contractor has been working closely with the machine's manufacturer, Hitachi Zosen Corp., to orchestrate the repairs. Seattle Tunnel Partners project manager, Chris Dixon, said that on June 4, he and executives from Tutor Perini and Dragados USA, the two companies that make up the contracting venture, went to Japan and met with executives from Hitachi Zosen. Dixon described it as a "critical meeting."

"We got a couple things from them; we got a commitment to meet the schedule," Dixon said. He added: "It is an aggressive schedule."

Crosscut archive image.
Workers at a Hitachi Zosen Corp. facility in Japan weld replacement bearing components for the Highway 99 tunnel boring machine. Photo: WSDOT

"The other thing we've impressed upon them," he said, "is that whatever repairs they carry out to fix the seal problem, we expect them to go above and beyond that, so that we have a machine that we are 100 percent confident can tunnel the remaining 8,000 feet under the city of Seattle, without any further incident."

Dixon described the seal system failure as the "root problem" that will be fixed during the repair process. The machine has seven main bearing seals, two of which will be much thicker in a new, more robust, system that Hitachi Zosen is engineering. The repairs will also involve replacing the main bearing itself, as well as adding 86 tons of steel ribs and other new reinforcement parts at the front of the machine to strenghten the area around bearing assembly. A computer system will also be upgraded to provide Bertha's operator with more information while the machine is digging, including additional sensor data about the status of the bearing seal system.

When the seals failed, contaminants, such as grit and water, entered the area around the main bearing, which is one of the machine's more important components. Weighing approximately 88-tons and measuring about 33-feet in diameter, the main bearing allows Bertha's cutter-head to spin and bore through the earth. Seattle Tunnel Partners has decided to replace the bearing even though it is unclear how severely it was damaged when the seal system failed.

Bertha is currently about 60 feet underground in Pioneer Square. The machine is stopped about 1,000 feet into the planned tunnel path, which stretches roughly 9,000 feet between SoDo and South Lake Union.

To access and fix the machine, Seattle Tunnel Partners will build a concrete-lined pit between the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Pier 48, just south of South Main Street. The pit will be about 120-feet deep and roughly 83-feet wide. Once the pit is excavated, Bertha's cutter-head, along with other parts at the front of the machine, which together weigh almost 2,000 tons, will be removed. A crane-like "modular lift tower," which is shaped like a goal post, will straddle the pit and raise the hefty components to ground level in a single lift. The lift tower will then rotate the cutter-head assembly and set it face-down on the ground so the repairs can be performed. The pit is scheduled to be finished in September and the cutter-head removal is slated to take place in October.

Crosscut archive image.
Workers are taking preliminary steps to build a pit in Pioneer Square to access and repair Bertha. Photo: WSDOT

Unearthed but not forgotten, is an 8-inch diameter, 119-foot long steel well-casing, which the boring machine chewed through in early December last year. The pipe was left in the ground by a Washington State Department of Transportation contractor in 2002.

Seattle Tunnel Partners has argued that the current stoppage is at least partly attributable to the machine hitting the pipe. The contractor has also claimed that WSDOT did not provide sufficient notice that the pipe was still in the ground. Based on these claims, the contractor began to seek additional time and money for the project from the state. In a "change order request" submitted on March 14, Seattle Tunnel Partners asked WSDOT for a $125,331,204 compensation increase to cover the costs of the current stop-down.

WSDOT denied that request. The agency has said that project documents provided Seattle Tunnel Partners with ample notice that the well site existed, and that the contractor is not entitled to any more time or money under the terms of the tunnel contract. 

Crosscut archive image.
This is a pipe: A segment of the 119-foot well-casing that Bertha chewed through in December of last year. Photo: WSDOT 

Seattle Tunnel Partners has the option to appeal the change order denial. The appeal process could provide the contractor with another avenue for making an attempt to recover some of the stop-down costs. Asked during the news conference on Monday about whether it was still Seattle Tunnel Partners' position that the pipe contributed to Bertha's mechanical problems, Dixon declined to answer.

"We're really not here to discuss the whys," he said. "We're here to present the repair plan and I think that question's best addressed in another forum down the road."

When a reporter pressed the issue, WSDOT program administrator, Todd Trepanier, jumped in.

"I think we still stand right where we are," he said. "They have some other contractual rights they can follow through on. They have not done that yet."

Earlier in the news conference, Dixon stressed that getting the tunnel-boring machine fixed so it can resume digging is the priority in the near term. For now, he said, there were no clear-cut explanations for why it was damaged.

"There's probably as many theories out there as you could hope to find, but there's nothing that's been specifically identified," he said. "Those are still all under discussion and the objective of all this is to get the [tunnel-boring machine] up and running again as soon as possible."


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors