Less Boring Than We Expected

Tunnel-Boring Machine Is Stuck Indefinitely, and It's the State's Fault

Less Boring Than We Expected


THERE WON’T BE CARS IN HERE ANYTIME SOON Maybe we should just turn it into a skate park, guys.

  • comments (27)
  • Print

Bertha, the world's largest tunnel-boring machine, struck an eight-inch-diameter, 119-foot-long steel pipe in early December, officials revealed last week. The steel pipe brought the 57-foot-wide behemoth to a halt and caused severe damage to the machine's cutterhead.

But that's just the beginning of troubles for the controversial state megaproject. At a press conference last Friday, state officials acknowledged the pipe was placed there by a state-hired contractor in 2002 during the early stages of the highway replacement project. The pipe was not removed as it should have been, thereby ultimately placing fault with the state for leaving the metal shaft behind and then sending a tunneling machine into its path.

That pipe may be just one of many obstacles. Crews have since sampled the soil ahead of the stalled machine and discovered more metal obstructions lodged in the tunnel digger's path, which all must be removed before Bertha can proceed.

But when reporters peppered project managers with questions, they conceded there is currently no plan or timeline for removing the objects located more than 60 feet below downtown, raising concerns about possible delays, cost overruns, and who will foot the bill if the $4.2 billion project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct runs over budget.

Right now, it's not even clear what else may be blocking Bertha.

"We have probed 12 holes and encountered other obstructions in six of those holes," said Chris Dixon, the program manager for Seattle Tunnel Partners, which has a $1.4 billion contract with the state to dig the tunnel. (His company is not the same contractor that installed the pipe 11 years ago.) The obstructions are not believed to be boulders or timber, Dixon said, leading him to believe they are "metal objects." The tunneling machine's face can churn though soil and break boulders, but it cannot chew through metal. (For its part, the Washington State Department of Transportation, which is responsible for the project, claims that out of 17 soil samples, there were only four obstructions.)

"We need to remove the other pieces of metal so we do not cause further damage to the tunnel-boring machine," said Matt Preedy, the state's deputy program administrator for the project. "We don't want to push the limit with this thing." The multimillion-dollar machine has completed about one-tenth of its route and must remain in working order, he said, adding that officials don't know "if the pipe is the only issue or one of several," and it would take "a little while to explore" the situation.

It's fair to say that this amounts to a colossal setback for the megaproject—one that many worried would become a boondoggle.

The deep-bore tunnel is the largest part of the viaduct replacement project, a four-lane underground freeway that was the subject of controversy during planning stages due to speculation of unprecedented logistical hurdles, cost overruns, financing problems, and delays. Already a labor dispute stalled the project for a month last fall, in addition to this latest monthlong pause. Meanwhile, a contingency fund originally proposed at $415 million is only $40 million after inflation and other drains, shrinking the margins for affordable errors. The project budget also requires $400 million from future tolling revenue, but latest projections show the state may collect only about $165 million. All of these setbacks and shortfalls raise red flags—particularly when just a fraction of the tunnel has been dug—because state law prohibits spending additional money if the project runs over budget.

Typically, tunneling megaprojects run 34 percent over budget, according to a report by Bent Flyvbjerg, a Danish professor at the University of Oxford. But former governor Chris Gregoire's transportation secretary insisted in 2009, "There won't be any cost overruns." And Seattle City Council member Tom Rasmussen, a tunnel backer who chairs the council's transportation committee, claimed in 2010 that project bids "should put the question of cost overruns to rest."

But the overrun issue is wide-awake these days.

As the Tacoma News Tribune titled an editorial on December 30, "If Bertha gets snagged, don't send bill to the state." State law says that Seattle must bear all cost overruns, a statute that many claim is unenforceable but may be subjected to politics in the legislature, which is famously vindictive toward Seattle. The Tribune warns of "overruns to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars," adding that when it comes to the law requiring Seattle to pay overruns, "the legislature has made its intent clear—and lawmakers should make certain it does get enforced."

The state and Seattle Tunnel Partners still refuse to answer many key questions: cost per day of delay, why the metal pipe was not removed before drilling, the nature of changes to contracts since digging began, or how many days of stalled operations the project can handle before running into delays and cost overruns. Officials stonewalled or feigned ignorance on the answers.

Trouble began on December 3, when Bertha struck the vertical pipe, which was part of a well originally designed to measure the groundwater when the state first considered the viaduct replacement, but officials decided to continue plowing through the pipe anyway. "The fact that [Bertha] performed well for two days [after first hitting the pipe] gave us a false sense of security," said Dixon. Two days later, the machine was too belabored to proceed. "Tunnel-boring machines do not interact well with metal," he continued. "The cutterheads cannot cut steel."

Grinding through the metal with its six-story-high rotating face of gnashing blades, the cutterhead sustained "unusual damage" to many of those cutting tools, said Dixon. He said it takes several hours to replace each tool, and "the device has hundreds of tools."

Dixon said, "We did not know the pipe was there" because such objects are "usually... decommissioned from the ground."

Speaking for the state, which was ultimately responsible for removing the pipe, Preedy said the state knew about its location. "The location of the well [pipe] was described in certain documents." But as for contracts to remove that pipe and whether the state may incur liability for failing to remove it, he said, "We don't want to talk about contracts." recommended


Comments (27) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
i knew it so i backtracked, initially i was thinking that this had alot to do with the episode on SOUTH PARK where eric cartman "helps' butters, and thats how my big brother used to play with me.
Posted by misterdanton on January 8, 2014 at 9:47 AM · Report this
The TBM is stuck "indefinitely" in the same way that you can't tie your shoe while there's a not in your laces. There's an obvious solution, you implement it, you move on.

You guys are going to have a lot more stuff to kvetch about later on in the project. Much like singing the Star Spangled Banner, start in a low register to leave yourself room at the top near the end when it counts. With this as the opening salvo, you'll be frothing and ranting before mid-year.
Posted by Doug in SC on January 8, 2014 at 10:35 AM · Report this
The State needs to pay for their error in leaving the pipes in place!
Posted by woofy on January 8, 2014 at 2:13 PM · Report this
They need to backtrack and find out which contractor did the work and who was the inspector assigned to the job and then decide who's to blame. The state may have decided to leave the pipe in place for future inspections of water levels. Sheesh! Blame Blame Blame! Just get the job back on track.
Posted by longwayhome on January 8, 2014 at 8:08 PM · Report this
Well you missed the obvious here. The pipe was placed in 2002 at no huge expense and can easily be removed. It's deep but not all that long. That and a bathtub or two and they will be on their way. Sorry to disappoint. I know how badly the Stranger wanted to derail this fantastic project that will pay for itself from property tax on property that will increase exponentially downtown. Sad. There was once a time when we liberals were pro public works projects. If you guys were around 70 odd years ago you'd be fighting against the Grand Coulie dam suggesting energy rationing instead.
Posted by jeffy on January 8, 2014 at 8:47 PM · Report this
#5: "fantastic project?" How much hash oil did you have for breakfast.

This is a tunnel that carries only two lanes each way and no shoulders: so you think traffic jams are "fantastic" since currently Hwy 99 jams daily at the very spot that's just like the tunnel, the Bell St. section.

The tunnel offers no on/off ramps to downtown, massively undermining its utility.

The tunnel is so expensive (and costs are climbing every day that nothing is being done), that tolls to the tune of $9 both ways are being discussed. for a stretch less than 2 miles. So where do you think the toll-avoiding public will spill onto: downtown, or I-5, or both?

There is also the unpublicized necessary cost of the seawall fix, $400 million, that former mayor McGinn tried to tell the public but was shushed by the tunnel-loving City Council before the tunnel vote, but once the tunnel was voted through the City Council was first on the horn about "WE NEED TO FIX THE SEAWALL!!!!!!" Effing jerks.

Fantastic?! What fantasy are you living in?!
Posted by BillyT on January 9, 2014 at 5:58 AM · Report this
And more, #5 "jeffy:"

"easily removed?" One month later, the easily removed pipe has not yet been removed. How many months per pipe, and how many more pipes are still ahead?

You are "easily" off-base with your sunny proclamation. This is clearly only the start of the Big Dig, West Coast Edition.
Posted by BillyT on January 9, 2014 at 6:01 AM · Report this
The thing that stood out most to me was that the current contractors are JUST NOW probing the soil to check for other obstructions? Shouldn't they have done this before they even started, not after they hit a steel pipe?
Posted by Shane P. on January 9, 2014 at 11:21 AM · Report this
*Jazz hands*
Posted by elle macfearson on January 9, 2014 at 11:56 AM · Report this
And of course the monorail construction would have no unforeseen obsticals. Because we know through the long history of public works projects, they are so rare. >snark< . We were initially present with a very streamlined, barely there thin line transversing the route only to learn the codes statewide and to be ADA compliant, would actually looked like the L train monstrosity. The tunnel will be built and we will have an awesome waterfront because of it.
Posted by jeffy on January 9, 2014 at 12:33 PM · Report this
How much was the monorail system?
Posted by ObserveIT on January 9, 2014 at 2:58 PM · Report this
12 Comment Pulled (Spam) Comment Policy
superhyrulean 13
Well,this just proves that the city doesn't know its ass in a hole in the ground... It throws money at projects that take 50 to 100 years to build and doesn't think ahead or about what they already build least it wasn't a gas line,sewer pipe or a water/steam main...
Posted by superhyrulean on January 10, 2014 at 2:00 AM · Report this
5 points to The Stranger for this headline. TWO MEANINGS!
Posted by Brendon S on January 10, 2014 at 12:26 PM · Report this
@2, @5. Rational and correct, thanks.
@ most everybody else:
fire the contractor!
dismantle SDOT and fire everyone there!
this will cause our city to go bankrupt!
Seattle will be a ghost town!
this is just like Boston's Big Dig!
everyone on this project is an idiot

Guess what? Huge earth-moving, forward-thinking physical public projects are subject to real-world issues such as gravity, weather, unknown conditions, statics and strength of materials, and, finally, humans running the show. There are hundreds of individual humans on this job and most of them are just as smart as you are, if not more so.
Issues like this are not resolved by the click of a mouse or a spreadsheet (or a snotty comment on some blog). It's real, physical, mud and rain, and hands-on work.
I wonder what the commentary would have been like if there had been commentary for the viaduct and I5?
Posted by crone on January 10, 2014 at 11:23 PM · Report this
16 Comment Pulled (Spam) Comment Policy
17 Comment Pulled (Trolling) Comment Policy
18 Comment Pulled (Spam) Comment Policy
I look forward to the near future, where this abandoned hole in the ground is a suitable playground for graffiti artists, urban spelunkers, and the homeless.
Posted by CornsilkSW on January 12, 2014 at 4:47 PM · Report this
Lots of pessimists on this commenting section. The blockage is only an engineering problem and some engineers are having the time of their lives figuring out how to solve it. If anything, this experience will make tunnel boring more efficient for all similar projects in the future. The only thing the project really needs to change is the director who cannot seem to plan effectively.
Posted by montex on January 12, 2014 at 9:45 PM · Report this
If only there had been a proposal for a surface route alternative...

Posted by mikemcginnstwitterfeed on January 12, 2014 at 10:35 PM · Report this
Buxtehude 22
We in Des Moines can only laugh at Seattle. Fortunately, you are your own city so we won't have to help pay for your usual idiocy.
Posted by Buxtehude on January 13, 2014 at 7:33 AM · Report this
Boston's big dig went from a cheery initial estimate of 2.8 Billion$ to 14.6 billion dollars. Current estimates are that by the time the needed fixes are done it will be 22 billion dollars.

Seattle is going to have to work hard to beat that, but I'm sure we can do it with the giant minds we have estimating and managing the project. Why we haven't even found any Archeological sites or figured out we will have the same problem with Rat migration mitigation.

The difference is that the big dig was in large part Tip O'Neil's parting gift of most of the Northeast Federal Highway funds. In Seattle, cost overruns will be paid for by the Seattle Homeowners who will get no use out of the new tunnel since it bypasses downtown.

Stay tuned for expressions of shock and surprise from the city council.
Posted by NickN on January 13, 2014 at 4:52 PM · Report this
In our design course at UW for Civil Engineering, the tunnel was just one of many options that we could analyze. However, there was one option that seemed fairly viable but never got proposed to the Seattle public. A coastal cable-stay bridge like this one, albeit shorter:…

The Tunnel and the Bridge had similar difficulties, but the bridge foundation locations would be somewhat flexible until viable soil was located in the SR-99 footprint. Just curious, how many people against the Tunnel would also be against the Bridge, and how many would be for it?
Posted by Eskiknowitall on January 13, 2014 at 5:08 PM · Report this
In our design course at UW for Civil Engineering, the tunnel was just one of many options that we could analyze. However, there was one option that seemed fairly viable but never got proposed to the Seattle public. A coastal cable-stay bridge like this one, albeit shorter:…

The Tunnel and the Bridge had similar difficulties, but the bridge foundation locations would be somewhat flexible until viable soil was located in the SR-99 footprint. Just curious, how many people against the Tunnel would also be against the Bridge, and how many would be for it?
Posted by Eskiknowitall on January 13, 2014 at 5:09 PM · Report this
Machiavelli 26
Tunneling projects are always full of unforeseen conditions. Always

The tunnel boring and construction is a STATE project, not a City of Seattle project. That would be WSDOT as opposed to SDOT. City of Seattle has done the utility relocation portion, not the tunnel boring.

State of Washington WSDOT, is the same team that designed the 520 floating bridge replacement and sent to bid & construction before identifying their critically flawed design, resulting in cracked pontoons. 200 million and counting straight out of the State's pocket. The State needs to learn how to hold contractors accountable for design, engineering and what is called "means and methods" by writing a more thorough contract.

All these large projects have significant risk and unforeseen conditions, but the State can shift risk to the contractors via design review engineering and verification, existing condition acceptance.
Posted by Machiavelli on January 13, 2014 at 5:11 PM · Report this
Even horrible projects have bugs...
Posted by RicketyRick on January 14, 2014 at 6:49 PM · Report this

Add a comment