In the who-broke-Bertha contest, score one for STP

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Who broke Bertha? We still don't know.

On days like today we get a pinhole view into just how complicated the post-Bertha dispute resolution could be. In a recent decision, the tunnel project’s Dispute Review Board (DRB) — that's the independent body tasked with unofficial mediation between the Washington State Department of Transportation and the joint venture contractor Seattle Tunnel Partners — blames WSDOT for not properly informing STP about the infamous 8-inch steel pipe that may have brought down Bertha.

When the tunnel boring machine ground to a halt last December, the steel pipe was the alleged culprit. But that conclusion has since been called into question. Leaders from WSDOT and STP have acknowledged that the seals behind Bertha's cutterhead failed, causing excessive friction and overheating. The why is elusive.

We won't know the extent or the cause of the damage until crews disassemble the face of the giant tunnel boring machine. According to the schedule laid out last March by STP’s Chris Dixon, the answers should be forthcoming anytime now.

Today’s DRB ruling is tricky. For one, it is non-binding. But more importantly, it does not answer the big question: Who’s responsible for our broken Bertha? Friday's ruling sounds nuanced, on paper. But with a project the size of the tunnel, even nuances have broad implications.

Well in advance of the tunneling, WSDOT commissioned extensive research into the soil conditions beneath the viaduct. During that exploration, crews dug a small hole that revealed the pipe and located it in the tunnel’s path. So far, so good.

The problem, according to the DRB, is that the pipe's composition (cold, hard steel) was never explicitly shared with STP. Details were left out of the contract between WSDOT and STP.

WSDOT argues that any trained eye could have just looked into the hole, seen the pipe and known it was made of steel. Not so, counters STP. “WSDOT is expected to argue that STP could have inferred the true nature of the well casing by researching a non-contractual Reference Document,” wrote STP in its argument.

In the end, the DRB sided with Seattle Tunnel Partners, calling the steel pipe a "Differing Site Condition," which means, in technical terms, that the pipe caught STP off guard.

For now, the DRB decision means next to nothing. But — and it’s a big but — if crews determine that this rusty pipe is the smoking gun that brought Bertha to her knees, it might, says WSDOT Communications Manager Laura Newborn, “open the door to further claims,” but adding "we are nowhere near that."

Here we go.


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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.