Tensions rise over Bertha project

State officials defend the safety of work on the dig but snipe at the city of Seattle.
Crosscut archive image.

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

State officials defend the safety of work on the dig but snipe at the city of Seattle.

Communications between the state and city regarding the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Program have been as strained as the project itself, with each department's officials recently feeling they’re speaking honestly without being heard. The release of a report from the Washington State Department of Transportation's engineering firm talking about potentially serious problems surrounding the excavation pit for making repairs to Bertha may have sent the relationship between the state and the city council to an all-time low.

The lack of trust was tangible in a briefing to the council from WSDOT Monday.

The partnership turned seriously south in early December when it became public that the viaduct and parts of Pioneer Square had sunk an inch or more. Members of the city council — especially Councilmember Mike O’Brien — felt that WSDOT was slow to report their findings. And they were angry that they did not learn of the issue until a Seattle Times article on the settlement was published. WSDOT said they did not share the data because it was preliminary and unconfirmed. And while it was supposed to be shared with the council before the Times’ article, an e-mail glitch prevented distribution of the information. 

Since December, WSDOT has not found any further settlement, and concern over the viaduct’s safety had faded slightly. While the council never got an answer for exactly what circumstances might call for the viaduct to be closed, the apparent stabilization of the structure quieted the concerns.

Until today.

The newest worry has to do with the stability and safety of Bertha’s excavation pit, just west of Alaskan Way on what would be Main Street. The fear was stoked by a draft report from WSDOT’s contracted engineering firm, Brierley and Associates, dated Dec. 11. The draft, first reported by The Stranger, said, “If we continue the current ‘repair as we go’ method of excavation, we significantly increase the risk of catastrophic failure.” However, a Dec. 18 version warns of the possibility of “a significant impact on the structural, geotechnical and hydraulic adequacy of the shaft structure.” In a letter sent last Tuesday, the Seattle Department of Transportation and Seattle Public Utilities questioned the language and discrepancies between the reports, wondering about the “alarm bells” and the change in language.

The settlement was believed to be a result of groundwater pumping — a necessary step to relieve pressure on the pit’s shaft. However, until this report, there was no reported concern for the structural integrity of the actual rescue shaft. “I hadn’t contemplated that the structure of the pit is a problem,” said O’Brien.

The integrity of the excavation shaft is especially important because of its proximity to the viaduct. Matt Preedy, the state's deputy administrator for the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Program, estimated that the 90 feet deep pit is only 20 feet from the nearest viaduct column.

However, state program administrator Todd Trepanier stressed, “At no time has there been a safety concern with the pit.” Excavation continues after stopping for a period between mid-December and early January. In his briefing to the council, he said that the viaduct remains safe and that any talk of “catastrophic failure” has been taken out of context. Preedy reminded everyone that the state, too, had workers in the pit and “we as a professional engineers are not going to allow any circumstance that would put the public or our workers at risk.”

According to Trepanier, “This is a report discussing what needs to take place as they do the next round of excavation,” not what’s happening now. He expressed “strong disappointment with SDOT and SPU” for sending the letter to begin with, suggesting that the letter set off unnecessary alarms.

However, none of the council members seemed ready to take Trepanier’s word for the shaft’s safety or that SDOT made a mistake in raising questions. Said O’Brien, “I don’t think SDOT is trying to undermine any of your work.”

So far, explained WSDOT representatives, crews are using a “repair as they go” method. Essentially, grout pillars are constructed to support the shaft behind the excavation. An alternative approach would be to inject the grout below ground, ahead of excavation. In their report, Brierley and Associates seemed to be advising crews to switch to the latter method and abandon the “repair as we go” method because of some concern for the “untreated soil zones” that far down. Brierley and Associates did not respond to voicemails.

The 90 feet that has already been dug is safe, state officials said. According to Preedy, there are “adequate protections in place that this pit will not fail.”

But council skepticism was clear. Referring to the original wording about "catastrophic failure," Councilmember Kshama Sawant said, “Engineers are not given to hyperbole.” Councilmember Sally Clark wondered why the Brierley and Associates would change the language and seemed concerned that there was “some massaging of the truth.”

An especially tense moment came when Trepanier attempted to explain and offer a solution to these problems. He stated that the draft with “catastrophic failure” in it was just that — a draft. Because WSDOT, SDOT and SPU share an electronic database of documents related to the project, he argued that SDOT had pulled a document they did not understand and used it to disseminate fear. He said, “We are going to establish new protocols for communication. We may not allow access to that database.”

Councilmembers Tim Burgess, Nick Licata and O’Brien jumped on this. “I hope the state,” said Council President Burgess, “does not decide to restrict access to the database and say ‘You’re making incorrect conclusions so therefore we’re going to cut off access.’” Trepanier seemed to backtrack, saying, “There will be nothing held back.”

SDOT officials, in their portion of the briefing, clarified why they sent that letter. Transportation Director Scott Kubly said, “What we were trying to communicate was not grave concern for the rescue shaft. What we were trying to convey was a need for open communication. We wanted to get an explanation for why a seemingly important explanation should be deleted. There could be perfectly reasonable explanations for why that sentence should be deleted, but we wanted to be clear.” Councilmember Tom Rasmussen asked if people who traveled the viaduct every day should be concerned, Kubly replied, “I don’t think panic over the viaduct is an appropriate response.”

Despite the tension and frustration, Kubly managed to end the briefing on an optimistic note: “Working partners will inevitably have tense communication. But good partners can move on and see that tension can actually be healthy.” 


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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.