Thom Neff, a civil engineer hired by the last mayoral administration to assess tunnel project risks, thinks hes the man to help guide Seattle through (or out of) the Bertha mess.
Thom Neff, a civil engineer hired by the last mayoral administration to assess tunnel project risks, thinks he's the man to help guide Seattle through (or out of) the Bertha mess. Courtesy of Thom Neff

If you were following the Bertha boondoggle as far back as 2010, you might recognize Thom Neff's name. That was the year former mayor Mike McGinn hired Neff to analyze the risks of pursuing the downtown tunnel project.

Neff, a civil engineer who once served as senior vice president at Parsons Brinckerhoff, came to a startling conclusion. Taking downtown Seattle's tricky geology into account, the tunnel would experience "unprecedented" risks and its success was questionable.

Since 2010, Neff, who now runs his own infrastructure consulting firm in Boston, has been one of the few outspoken commentators on the project. He's suggested that it's necessary to find a Plan B. He sees the tunnel project's current state as a Prisoner's Dilemma, the famous game-theory quagmire in which rational thinking leads all parties into disaster.

As of this week, however, Neff has applied to replace the outgoing Washington State Department of Transportation's (WSDOT) tunnel program manager. Last year, program manager Todd Trepanier announced he'd be leaving for a gig in Yakima. The Bertha replacement position, which has been advertised in the Engineering News Record, features a salary of $173,352 a year.

According to Neff, WSDOT acknowledged receipt of his application yesterday.

But let's face it: Neff's candor is probably the last thing WSDOT would want in a tunnel bureaucrat.

I decided to give him a mock job interview anyway. Our Q+A is below.

Why do you think you are qualified for this position?

Because of my resumé. I have worked on numerous, very large, complicated urban infrastructure projects all over the world, many of which include civil engineering, tunnels, and bridges. And also, along with that, my resumé is unusual in that I can say that I'm a generalist. I have been a planner, a designer, a contractor, been involved in claims, gone to court as an expert witness. I've done all these roles over all these years on different types of projects. Some people think they'd like experts, but it seems to be that the experts have been wrong frequently and got us into the mess we're in now.

What would you do differently from your predecessor, Todd Trepanier?

I can't answer that, because I don't know enough details about how long he's been involved in the project. I don' know this person, his personal philosophy. It would be very unfair to answer that.

Whoever takes this position would be assuming control of the tunnel project, which is in a very precarious position...

It's very, very precarious. And I think the reason is having the governor stop the project for cause, which the contract allows him to do. He has now, in my judgment, painted himself into a bit of a corner, because now he has to say, "Okay it's safe to start again," in which case, he owns some of what happens. Stopping the work for cause—that lifted it up to a new level.

You've written about the unprecedented risks of the tunnel project before. You've suggested we consider a Plan B. If part of your job would be participating in decisions on whether Bertha's safe to restart, or whether it should be shut down, do you think the opinions you've expressed in the past would prejudice your ability to make decisions now?

No, I don't. Because again, I wouldn't be making any decisions without consulting an awful number of people. I would be part of a team. I stand behind what I wrote in 2010, every word of that report. I wouldn't change one word. I would just say that if we look at the evidence now, clearly we had some reason to be nervous about the project. And at this point, because of more than two years delay and the number of claims and change orders that have been filed, it's a mess. Getting where we are today to some kind of a resolution—and we have no idea what that resolution may be—that's going to be very difficult to do.

Do you still think there should be a Plan B?

Yes. And I've said that in several publications.

What would a viable alternative look like?

Because I'm not there, and because I'm not intimately involved in all the people and all the decisions being made, I can't answer that. But I can just remind people to look at the evidence, and the evidence suggests that we have a very serious problem, and that the answer is not obvious. I really think referring to this as a Prisoner's Dilemma is an accurate description. There are only bad answers and worse answers.

So if you got hired, would you move to Washington?

Well, look. The likelihood of me getting even an interview for this job is pretty close to zero. Let's be honest here. But of course! If they hired me, I'd have to move to Seattle. I did this for many reasons.

Do you think it's going to be difficult to hire someone to replace Trepanier?

My experience with numerous projects like this—projects that had problems and tried to change horses in midstream—my experience suggests it will not be easy to find someone to take this job. Because it's like [asking], "How do you like this deck chair on the Titanic?"

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.