Happy Bertha-day? The frustrating year since the tunneling turned to waiting

This weekend marks one year since Bertha got stuck. As the viaduct sinks, there won't be much celebration for the anniversary.
Crosscut archive image.

By March of 2015, when it is predicted that Bertha will start digging again, the TBM will have been out of commission for about a year.

This weekend marks one year since Bertha got stuck. As the viaduct sinks, there won't be much celebration for the anniversary.

December 7th, a day which has long lived in infamy, now marks more than just the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It was on this day one year ago that news broke of Bertha’s grinding, overheated halt, which apparently occurred a day before the news got out. Reports this week that repairs to our favorite tunnel-boring machine have been delayed another month come less as a surprise than as a fulfillment of lowered expectations for a project that has tested the patience of even the most forgiving Seattleites.

Flipping through the year's coverage in Crosscut, The Seattle Times, local broadcast outlets, even The New York Times, one can’t help but feel the dramatic irony: Unlike the reporters who were covering Bertha's blissful beginnings, we know how this plot unfolds.

Let's go back to April of 2013: Bertha arrives by ship from Japan. The complexity of this massive tunnel boring machine (TBM) hit home immediately as we witnessed her arrival — in 41 separate pieces that took a month to unload. The heaviest piece weighed in at a massive 900 tons.

For two months, workers lowered Bertha's parts into a deep pit on the waterfront and began the assembly process. When Doug MacDonald — Crosscut writer, former Secretary of Washington State's Department of Transportation and a tunnel geek himself — toured the inner Bertha he was in love. "I've never seen anything like this,” he told Greg Hauser, Bertha's Deputy Project Manager. “That’s because there’s never been anything like this,” Hauser replied. “This, for a machine, is almost unbelievable. I call it a work of art.”

Crosscut archive image.

Happier days: The tunnel-boring machine as contractors prepared it for duty in July 2013 Photo: Doug MacDonald

While there was no shortage of public skepticism for the project, MacDonald’s piece ("Digging It") captured the genuine excitement of those early days. Bertha, at 7,000 tons the world's largest TBM, was "already an international rock star," wrote MacDonald. And the prospect of replacing the dangerous Alaskan Way Viaduct with a waterfront park and a hidden Highway 99 was hard not to like, even if you had questions about the cost and the execution.

And then came what many saw as the inevitable: Bertha stopped.

What followed was a long song and dance about what had so rudely halted her progress, rained on our parade. KUOW had callers guess what might be stopping the might TBM: Godzilla? UFO? Richard Sherman? There was, for a time, conjecture that a boulder or piece of concrete of just the right size had lodged itself in the machine. "None of these things in and of themselves is enough to slow the machine down," said WSDOT spokesperson Laura Newborn at the time. And she was right. What got in the way was a well casing left behind, not by some prehistoric Seattleites, as a few historically-minded locals had hoped, but by WSDOT itself, back in 2002.

Regardless, the spin for nearly two months was that Bertha was blocked, not broken. During that spell, the contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP), launched what was then called a “long and extensive investigation" to find out what was wrong with the tunneling machine. Despite the delay, WSDOT insisted that the drilling project would remain on schedule. Crosscut contributor Matt Fikse disagreed, arguing that the original deadline was toast.

Fikse was right. The reasons for Bertha's stoppage were uncovered in two stages.

First was the discovery that the seal behind Bertha’s cutterhead were damaged. "After moving the machine a short distance during the last week of January, sensors showed unusually high operating temperatures," wrote Bill Lucia in a Crosscut piece, "The hotter than normal readings led workers to find the busted seal.” Even so, a headline in The Seattle Times remained optimistic, estimating the repair time as “several more weeks.” But the story itself closed with a prophetically accurate mention of a possible scenario that would create "a more daunting mission."

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A sign inside the underground operation during an April tour, as concerns mounted Photo: Kate Harloe

The prevailing optimism was based on the assumption that Bertha's main bearing, the one that rotates her head, did not need replacing. "It’s unlikely the $5 million bearing must be fully replaced, and STP hasn’t reported bearing damage," said Matt Preedy, deputy Highway 99 administrator for WSDOT. Several months later, in April, it was learned that STP was informing WSDOT "verbally" that the main bearing would indeed require replacement.

“When STP discovered the seals had been damaged and that the main bearing needed to be replaced, it became apparent the repair process would take some time,” says Newborn in an email exchange last week. When asked how much time had elapsed between STP discovering the broken seal and deciding the bearing needed replacing, Newborn said she did not know. STP did not respond to inquiries.

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Inside the underground work area during the April tour Photo: Kate Harloe

Blame flew, as blame is wont to do. For a time, it fell on the STP crew for overworking the machine, although project manager Chris Dixon vehemently denied the accusation. The Seattle Times questioned whether Bertha had been properly tested in Japan. When asked who was to blame, Newborn said that WSDOT didn't know, but that “it was STP’s responsibility to procure and operate the tunneling machine.” Currently, Japanese manufacturer Hitachi-Zosen is paying for the repairs to Bertha; STP is paying for the shaft that has to be dug to get access to the stalled machine.

As it sits now, 74 of the shaft's needed 120 feet have been excavated. The digging hit another snag about a month ago when excavators hit shell deposits that were, for 10 days at least, believed to be of historic value. They weren't, and the project resumed.

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Time lapse camera image of the boring machine repair pit on Oct. 24 Photo: WSDOT  

Newborn says WSDOT is “hoping for an update [on progress] in a few weeks” at which point the agency will know more about how much longer Bertha will remain idle. She noted, however, that work on the tunnel is ongoing even without Bertha. “Contractor crews continued substantial work on 1,000 feet of cut-and-cover-tunnels on the north and south ends, including significant progress on the south operations building," she says. "In addition, the contractor has begun building the roadway inside the tunnel.”

Good news to be sure, but, allows Newborn, “Everybody’s disappointed, nobody wants to be where we are.” Actual tunneling is now expected to resume in April of next year.

On Friday, The Seattle Times' Mike Lindblom reported that, due to Bertha's boring, the viaduct has sunk 1.2 inches, a sign that the team is struggling to control the soil. Although Preedy promises that the buidlings and viaduct are safe, this news is just one more reason why the anniversary of the boring machine's halt is truly a none-too-happy first Bertha-day for Seattle.  


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.