Senator takes a new shot at Bertha tunnel work

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The north end of the bored tunnel.

Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, is taking a second swing at Bertha. And this time, he's got a lot more company.

Baumgartner introduced a bill Wednesday to declare that the state will not funnel any new tax money or other new revenue toward replacing Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct. In a brief interview, Baumgartner said the bill targets Bertha, the trouble-plagued tunnel-boring machine that has been stalled beneath Seattle's waterfront for 14 months.

"The state has a Bertha problem. ... My constituents are very concerned about Bertha," Baumgartner said.

His bill calls for any new gas tax money -- which could be part of a massive transportation package compromise -- to be ineligible to go to Bertha. Talks about a transportation package have been deadlocked for 22 months between the GOP-controlled Senate and the Democrat-controlled House. Figures of a gas tax increase of 10 cents to 14 cents per gallon have floated around Olympia. Right now, the gas tax is 37.5 cents per gallon. Also in play is Gov. Jay Inslee's carbon emissions tax plan, which would charge polluters and funnel money to transportation projects to head off a gas tax increase.

Two weeks ago, Baumgartner and Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, introduced a bill to shut down Bertha and to fill in its tunnel. That bill caught GOP Senate leaders by surprise and Transportation Committee chair Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said at that time that the bill it would never get a hearing. He said Bertha can still finish its job.

On Wednesday afternoon, King said he had not read Baumgartner's new bill and could not comment on it. Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lakes Stevens and ranking Democrat on the Transportation Committee, opposes Baumgartner's new bill, calling it "bad policy.

With the exception of Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, the 14 cosponsors come from outside King and Pierce counties. But several are from the Northwest corner of the state, including Sens. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, and Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor. Ericksen is not a cosponsor of this bill.

At a Senate Transportation Committee meeting late Wednesday afternoon, Todd Trepanier, the Washington State Department of Transportation’s administrator for the tunnel project, updated the senators on the work. Without mentioning his bill, Baumgartner quizzed Trepanier on change orders and on contingency funds. Seattle Tunnel Partners, the contractor, has asked for $210 million in change orders on the $1.44 billion project. The transportation department approved only $48 million worth of change orders, Trepanier said.

"Can you complete the project with the money already allocated?" Baumgartner said.

"I'm not aware of any issue that entitles the contractor to more money," Trepanier said. With a hint of irritation, committee chair King told Baumgartner: "We have $144 million left in our contingency fund. We haven't spent all of our contingency."

In January, the Seattle Times reported that a dispute resolution board ruled that the state owes $20 million to Seattle Tunnel Partners for incorrect groundwater data at the site of a giant vertical rescue shaft for Bertha. Sinking soil has shown up as a problem next to Bertha's location, which is affecting some Pioneer Square buildings.

In 2009, the Legislature approved Bertha's budget with the condition that the City of Seattle covers any overrun costs. But since then, questions have hovered over whether that decision is enforceable, especially without some further action by the Legislature.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8