New Bertha delay, and little confidence it's the last one

Crosscut archive image.

The photo shows the main bearing for Bertha encircled by the gear ring that facilitates rotation of the cutterhead.

The tunnel-boring machine Bertha, already idle now for more than 20 months, is now expected to need until November 23 to begin work again, three months later than was projected last March.

Surprised? Perhaps not. It's the fourth official delay for the $3 billion Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Program.

The underground 99 Highway is now scheduled to open in March of 2018, two years and three months behind schedule.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) released the revised schedule early Friday morning. Contractor group Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP), which is responsible for most of the tunnel operations on Seattle’s waterfront, delivered the plan to WSDOT last week. While STP’s Project Manager Chris Dixon said he has confidence in the new schedule, WSDOT said it has not verified the schedule and stopped just short of questioning the projected resumption of work.

Prior to a press briefing with Dixon and WSDOT's Todd Trepanier, and for reasons that were not entirely clear, WSDOT provided a tour Friday of the south entrance to the future highway and the beginnings of the tunnel. Crews continue to work on the “cut and cover” portion of the highway: a 1,500-foot strip of road that is excavated and then covered, not bored. Additionally, crews have constructed 432 feet of what will be the upper level, southbound road inside the tunnel.

Crosscut archive image.
WSDOT wants you to know that progress is still being made on

Above ground, pieces of Bertha were strewn about as employees of numerous subcontractors welded and hammered and adjusted. The largest piece, the cutter head that leads the way underground, was inverted on an enormous platform. Contrasting with the head’s rusted teeth were shiny new seals and gears.

Bertha overheated in December 2013. No party has been willing to venture a public guess for what caused the damage — likely due to fear of what a guess would mean in court — but they do know the seals meant to reduce friction were all but worn away. Dirt and grit penetrated the gears and bearings behind the cutter head, grinding it all to a halt.

Last March, STP’s Dixon predicted the contractor team would finish repairs by June and have the tunneling underway again by August. However, at the time he called that prediction “aggressive.”

After a herculean effort to access the machine through an enormous pit, the machine was disassembled and carefully lifted to the surface. After several months of silence, Dixon’s schedule has, indeed, turned out to be too aggressive. “Assessing the damage,” he said Friday, “took more time than anticipated.” The new plan, he said, is to complete repairs and lower the parts back underground next month. In September, they will reconnect the hundreds of hoses and wires. STP will then test the machine over the course of two months, first in the open air, then under the weight of piled dirt and water.

If Bertha indeed begins tunneling next November, it will be almost exactly two years since it first stopped working. The anniversary will not be a happy one. WSDOT’s Trepanier said multiple times the officials were “very disappointed” with the delay.

Dixon said he “has confidence” in the 2018 estimate, but also said, in a tone of asking for understanding, “We are doing things never done before.”

Trepanier was quick to say that WSDOT had not verified that schedule. “You are not hearing confidence from WSDOT,” he said.

Replacement parts for Bertha include the damaged seals, the main bearing responsible for rotating the cutterhead, 24 small gears, one large “bull gear,” and a center pipe the runs down the middle of Bertha. Crews are also adding parts that will mix dirt before it is fed through the machine and out the back, theoretically softening it and making damage less likely.

As far as who pays for what, Trepanier held the party line for the state that the original contract between WSDOT and STP places the burden on STP. But there have been a number hints that it might not be so easy, including one ruling from the project’s dispute review board that said WSDOT did not accurately convey site conditions to STP. Regardless, the question of who picks up which parts of the check will be likely be settled in many years of court battles to come.

Largely absent from the conversation has been Hitachi Zosen, the Japanese manufacturing company responsible for building Bertha. Dixon said Hitachi Zosen workers are still very much a presence in the replacement and repair process.


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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.