The Bertha tunnel contractor asked for a $20 million change order dealing with a differing site condition in the glacial soils at the site of the launch pit, pictured here.
  • Washington State Department of Transportation
  • Bertha's tunnel contractor may be entitled to a $20 million change order dealing with soil conditions at the site of the launch pit, pictured here.

Information bombs tend to go off right before the Washington State Department of Transportation meets with elected officials. That's what happened Thursday, when, an hour and a half before an afternoon "update" meeting with the House Transportation Committee, the Seattle Times revealed that Bertha's tunnel contractor could win a $20 million change order from 2012.

A dispute review board—made up of three people chosen by WSDOT and its contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners—sided with the contractor on January 16. (Processes like dispute review boards are supposed to keep contractors from going to court.) The board concluded that a "differing site condition was encountered in the glacial soils and that STP is entitled to relief."

So, in other words, STP say they ran into unanticipated soil conditions that were not agreed upon in their contract. Although we don't know what those soil conditions were, it's possible that STP may have grounds for a change order—which would allow STP to get more money from the state.

Does that mean that the state now has to cough up $20 million to STP? Well, it turns out that the state can ask the dispute review board to reconsider its recommendation. Todd Trepanier, Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Program administrator, also told the house committee that $40 million worth of funds had already been set aside within the program budget to deal with contingencies for "differing site conditions." WSDOT's now going over its options—and will study the recommendation—with its lawyers.

STP has requested a total of $210 million in change orders so far, Trepanier added, and the state reviewed and denied $162 million of them—or 77 percent. An outstanding $48 million in change order requests still have to be analyzed, he said, and the state has a total of $144 million (including the "differing site conditions"–specific $40 million) set aside for that sort of thing.

Republican legislators on the committee still had quite a few questions about Bertha's progress—particularly relevant in light of the fact that Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville) has said that the state will not pay any overruns. Trepanier used the 70-percent-complete figure, which refers to how much money (tied to contractor deliverables) the state has spent. Representative Jesse Young (R-Gig Harbor) tried a different tack and asked Trepanier how far away, length-wise, the tunnel was from being completed. "It doesn't quite work linearly like that," Trepanier said. Later, Representative Ed Orcutt (R-Kalama) asked Trepanier to point out where Bertha was on a map, and WSDOT highlighted the space between Jackson Street and Main Street.

As Heidi pointed out in December, that's not 70 percent complete. It's more like 1,000 feet out of two miles, or 10 percent.

But when Representative Matt Shea (R-Spokane Valley) asked what might happen if the contractor went bankrupt and walked off the job, Trepanier did offer this: If the contractor walks, there's a $500 million performance bond on the line. "That is sufficient funds to bring in another contractor and complete the contract," he said.

It's less clear whether it really would be that easy to find a new contractor given the tunnel project's history. A new contractor might also want to come up with an entirely different plan to finish the job—which means more delays and who knows how much more money.

Other stuff we learned:

• Trepanier says that after June of this year, WSDOT has no more money in the project budget to pay for increased transit services in Seattle while work continues on the tunnel. The legislature would have to authorize more funds from somewhere else within WSDOT to pay for Seattle transit—something that legislators might have a big problem with, if you read that TNT editorial.

• WSDOT has paid the contractor $980 million for deliverables thus far.

• When asked about the maximum depth of settlements that might be allowed, WSDOT said that it's differential settlements that would cause real concern, and uniform (even) settlements less so. Still, the tunnel contract specifies between 1 and 2 inches of total settlement as maximum levels, depending on which bent (viaduct support structure) you're talking about. You can look at this part of the contract here.

• WSDOT also reports that it's repairing its relationship with Seattle city agencies after they sent that fiery letter asking what happened to engineers' "catastrophic failure" language last week. Going forward, there are going to be "formal communications protocols." "Since then, we’ve met several times," Trepanier said. "I’ve met directly with the SDOT director on this issue."

• The contractor is about 14 feet away from reaching Bertha via the rescue pit. Dewatering continues.

And that's it. The next time WSDOT gives an update, it'll be in front of the Port Commission—which is also contributing as much as $300 million to the project—on February 10.