Guest Editorial: We Need to Stop Trying to Rescue This Tunnel Project and Consider Our Options


How many "I told you so's" can there be?

so many people thought this was going to be such a colossal fuck up... but here we are.
Ms. Moon's obviously intelligent and learned editorial poses a problem: Logically, she must represent the forces for anti-corruption?

Certainly, I don't see Ms. Moon's name on any of the lists of the Community Development Roundtable, which decides everything which occurs in Seattle?

So, should any credence or credibility be assigned to the intelligent, insightful thoughts and suggestions of one who is evidently not corrupt, crooked nor warped?

I, for one, am completely bewildered.

Is it remotely possible our wise ones at the WSDOT and the Roundtable are wrong, are mistaken, are unable to withdraw their corrupt heads from their butts?

One wonders . . . .but think of all the future tourism when Seattle becomes known as Sinkhole City!
The missing piece from this analysis is that even IF they get Bertha working again (a huge IF), there's no guarantee it won't get stuck again further down the line, and in a place where it is completely inaccessible (e.g. under a building). Then we are truly screwed.
hear hear, ms. moon.
I agree with this so much. You get the sense that there is a bureaucratic/group think momentum in the DOT that will never let this stop. Is there anyone driving the ship, looking at the big picture? The keep saying it's safe, it's safe, but they undermine their credibility by moving the yard posts or keeping them vague or secret.
70 percent of Seattle voted against the Deep Bertha Tunnel of Doom.

My Mayor, TEAR DOWN THE VIADUCT & cancel Bertha!

100,000+ Seattle citizens lives are at risk!
@3 is very correct
This is kind of alarmist. Can we get the editorial by Chris Gregoire telling us that this is no big deal, everything is fine, we should trust her?
@9 Ha!
Guess everyone was on crack when they pushed this latest fiasco. They should've torn down the viaduct and built the monorail, but noooooooooo....
...let it all just drop... They make sure that the catastrophe is on the old management and then they clean up. They don’t try to save old management’s mistakes. Let it all go to hell knowing good and well this is on them. That way you can implement. You hire your own coach. You get your own players.

Chris Rock.
WIll the establishment folks ever apologize to Mike McGinn?: Nah...
I'm delighted to see Cary Moon back in the discussion of this important and troubled project. She's a voice that shouldn't be ignored.
This is what happens when you let a bunch of looney-tune Democrats call the shots. In the spirit of their great leader, Nancy Pelosi, "We have to dig the tunnel to find out where it will fail."

Well, you found out.
it's easy to say I told you so now. hindsight's always 20/20

how many of you who objected to it have degrees in civil engineering? or mechanical engineering? how many of you conducted sonar analysis and analyzed core samples? you said you thought it would be a failure based solely on equally uninformed comments by authors and commenters here on this web site (and others).

hitachi zosen - a company that is the world's leading manufacturer of TBM's in the world - is the same company digging the light rail tunnels, which as I recall are under budget and ahead of schedule. they were also the same company that came in to rescue the TBM that was stuck in the Brightwater Tunnel. They successfully built a tunnel under the Yangtze River in China, ahead of schedule and under budget.

Do you really think hitachi zosen would intentionally bid on a project that they knew wasn't really feasbile? do you really think they honestly believed that they couldn't tunnel through the "glacial till" under seattle.

yes, the project has run into unforeseen difficulty. but none of the commenters here have the requisite knowledge, or conducted the requisite analysis to base their predictions of failure on anything other than emotion. to say that this project was doomed because of the size of Bertha - it IS NOT the largest TBM in the world, a lareger TBM finsihed a tunnel in Europe in March of 2013 and a bigger one was ordered for a project in Russia that got scrapped - don't know what you're talking bout. i would imagine that a single engineer at hitachi zosen know more about building tunnels than all of the strangers' subscribers combined.

I was not in favor of the tunnel project but I voted for it because I did not want the viaduct replaced. I was also tired of the typical Seattle approach to major public works projects, study it for years, hold public hearings on it ad nauseum, question the study and launch a new study, hold public hearings again and 20 years later nothing has been accomplished other than wasting millions on studies and public hearings (think monorail and light rail).

That is how I view Ms. Moon's viewpoint. We made a commitment to the tunnel and not the surface option and reinforced that commitment vicariously when we voted out Mike McGinn. We need to allow WSDOT and the general contractor to work out the problems of the tunnel bore. We are already significantly completed with many of the other road improvements associated with the tunnel approach. We need to see this project to completion. Please let's not have another ridiculous monorail fiasco with the usual Seattle second, third and fourth guessing. Want to help Ms. Moon help figure out a solution to the tunnel resumption and completion. We don't need armchair quarterbacks.
@17 All you ever had to do was look at the disastrous BigDig project in Boston to know the Viaduct replacement project would become a sinkhole for billions in cost overruns and years late.

(Using my serious voice) Are you interested in running for District 7?
I feel like I'm the only one who knew this was going to be a clusterfuck but still support it. It's a huge project, of course it will be hard. If you do some research on when they built the freeway back in the 60s, you'll find some very pissed off people during that process, but it got done, for better or worse, and despite the "Seattle Process".
@17 For all of the experts at Hitachi Zosen, the TBM still broke down. It is stuck in a very tough-to-access spot, and the rescue operation is destabilizing the city above. If they manage to get the TBM going only to have it break down again underneath a building, it's game over. Underground Seattle Tour just picked up a fantastically expensive new attraction.

I'm sure Hitachi Zosen *thought* they could do the job, and their track record might suggest they are very good at what they do, but no two projects are alike. This one is in deep shit. These commenters might not be civil engineers or mechanical engineers, but a lot of them will have to live with the success or failure of this project. So kindly take your appeal to authority somewhere else.
Why is this so fucking complicated? Can't they just dismantled that giant hunk of shit and drag it piece by piece back out of the hole it dug?

Because they wouldn't be able to fit a rebuilt TBM back down the hole (the machine has a larger diameter than the concrete-lined tunnel it poops out of its rear end), because the part of the hole occupied by the machine is not reinforced by anything other than the machine itself, because they wouldn't be able to adequately test the glued-back-together machine if they glued it back together down in the hole, and because if it failed the inadequate tests, they'd have to chop it up and start all over again.
@23: 6-minute animation of tunnel-boring machine illustrates @24's pithy description.…
the "seattle process" is a bullshit slander that rich and powerful folks use to marginalize and ridicule popular opposition to their projects that benefit their private interests at public expense.
@24-5: side-question - if the tunnel had broken down under actual buildings, what do you think they would have done to get the project going again? Would the tunnel be over? Is such a project entirely dependent on the tunnel boring machine not breaking, even once, at any really inopportune stages?
Awesome assessment! Cary's still right. :)
Silly Seattle why would you want to abandon Bertha and all that is going on with it. 45 years ago they wanted to demolish Pioneer Square and the ID and build parking garages, now we can actually do that. In a few months the whole district can be condemned and torn down. That will allow the parking needed for downtown to be finally built. Imagine a gleaming cloverleaf from the new waterfront freeway allowing your sleek SUV to park effortlessly in a new garage steps away from you office. After all the Eastside has needed this amenity for decades. So let's name the freeway the K. Freeman expressway with direct links to 520 and I 90. No on/ off ramps for riffraff in Seattle to bugger up traffic from. Know you place Seattle, know your place.
Boring machine
@27: As I understand it Seattle's situation is particularly crappy because of the high variability and unconsolidated nature of the ground. The tunnel-boring machine is kind of a compromise among various designs that would each be particularly suited to one type of soil/rock or another. And it does seem clear that if the TBM gets stuck any deeper than it is now, or under buildings, there is no reasonable means of extracting the machine.

By contrast, London is in the midst of a massive expansion of the Underground with 8 TBMs and 23 miles of tunnels, and seems to be going very well.…

I suppose Seattle could always try this, but it's even slower and riskier to life and limb:…

They could still repair the machine in place, but it would be slower, more dangerous, and more expensive than the current approach. Think hyperbaric divers, short work shfts, no large earthmoving equipment.


London is using much smaller, well-understood TBMs, 23.3 feet wide to Bertha's 57.5, with just 1/6 the cutting surface area. Bertha is the largest TBM ever built using the Earth Pressure Balance design. There have only been a few larger TBMs of any kind ever, none built by Hitachi Zosen. The largest TBM that HZ built prior to Bertha was also an EPB design, with a diameter of 44.5 feet; Bertha has a cutting surface 67% larger.

Picking Hitachi Zosen instead of Herrenknecht AG, the only firm with any experience building TBMs of that size, was a bad choice. Choosing a single giant tunnel instead of two standard ones was an even worse choice.
I'm sadly reminded of Pete Seeger's anti-Vietnam War song, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.

"It'll be a little soggy but just keep slogging.

We'll soon be on dry ground."

We were -- waist deep in the Big Muddy

And the big fool said to push on…
I'm sadly reminded of Pete Seeger's anti-Vietnam War song, Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.

"It'll be a little soggy but just keep slogging.
We'll soon be on dry ground."
We were -- waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool said to push on…
If not now, then when do we consider a Plan B?
Or is it a case of Plan A no matter what? That doesn't seem reasonable.
If you can't get Governor Gregoire to write a counter-editorial, I'd be happy to! Plenty of time on my hands, nothing to do....

@19 Have you ever been to Boston before or after the "big dig"? Didn't think so. Far from a "disaster" it has improved the city's urban design and transportation immensely.
Well said, Cary. This project has failed reasonable cost / benefit analysis from the very beginning, especially if you include the opportunity cost of spending that $2.4 billion on something better, like the surface + transit. Now that analysis is only getting worse, much worse in fact.
The funny thing about one likely result of a "surface/transit" scenario is that we'll have a major arterial -- far more traffic than Alaskan Way, the 4-lane street referred to in the post -- and it will act as a greater barrier than the Viaduct. (i.e the Viaduct never acted as a barrier -- allowing the Viaduct to be dirty and poorly-lit made the Viaduct feel like a barrier.)
@18 Ok northBeachBum, when the state comes knocking to pay for the huge cost overruns you can pick up the tab. I will have absolutely none of it.
for those who appreciate what the DOT has done for us in Seattle - tried driving on I5 lately? No wonder there was such debate over the tunnel project - the idea of turning loose the DOT on another system that would effect our everyday lives is totally dubious. But apparently our Seattle citizenry weren't pissed off at the I5 situation enough to keep the downtown interests and the looney surrogates of the downtown business interests on the city councel (notice the advent of district elections), excluding McGinn and O'Brien, from wallowing in commercial orgasm. Surely the tunnel was a brain dead, unimaginative idea foisted on the city with cynical intent by those who figured the voters would (of course) approve of the greenery along the Waterfront even though tourists and the clientry of the highrises downtown (the landlords ultimately) would be the beneficiaries. Those landllords didn't care much to have the hostile looking 99 running across their views - although from the other perspective of a driver on 99 the trip was probably one of the most scenic (complete with the rising wafts of cooking seafood) rides in the middle of any big city. And that was experienced by 100,000 citizens every day. But in any case since the Viaduct has to come down, what did we get? A hole in the ground - no imagination, no advantage to the citizens (could our city's designers ever have come up with a project such as the Highline?) The street level surface plan at this point sounds right but could we get some unjaded, inspired designers that haven't had their wildness knocked out of them by dealing with bureaucrats, self interested pols, and stuffy establishment crowns to enliven the plan conceptually. Certainly some architecture students from UW could do much better at this than what we have.
So, is there a petition yet floating about that calls for this hole to be filled back up (with what is probably the never-to-be-fixed Bertha still in it, preferably), the viaduct torn town before it collapses during rush hour now that it is sinking, and we go the way of San Fransisco's embarcadero? I would sign that in a heartbeat. Not only did I not vote for this mess, but I refuse to pay the cost overruns for something so ill-concieved by a group that no longer has any skin in the game (Gregoire, et al). This is insanity and it's going to cost the taxpayers dearly.
I have four concerns to add to Ms Moon's and Dominic's assessment of the deep bore tunnel feasibility. Most important, will the bore tunnel remain stable if finished? Will its presence act as a 'conduit' for groundwater to increase and spread further inland, deeper and below sea level as far north as Denny Way? If so, will this further destabilize already unstable soils beneath vulnerable buildings above its entire length? Will such destabilization worsen over time? Would destabilization amplify destructive affects of predicted major earthquakes? I've always predicted inevitable, unavoidable disaster if the bore tunnel is completed.

The second concern is about the seawall replacement technique, the "drill-fill sea fence," being 'cheap' and NOT impermeable to water breaking through thereby increasing hazards of groundwater destabilization.

The third concern is about the new Alaskan Way boulevard. I agree with the 4-lane option, but not with its 13 stoplights between Pike and King Streets. To address thru-traffic, I've long proposed a 2-lane frontage road east of Alaskan Way to reduce the number of stoplights to 9 or 10, and to allow motor vehicles to cycle between the frontage road and Western without being forced to reenter the thru-traffic of Alaskan Way. The Waterfront design committee, of which Ms Moon is a member, is only interested in a grandiose waterfront plaza, nevermind managing traffic.

The fourth concern is about Mercer West. Sdot's intention to redirect traffic to SR99 from the suitably 'commercial' corridor of Western/Elliott through 'residential' Queen Anne, including the dangerously steep hill of Mercer Place, will increase traffic, accidents, noise and pollution. The new wide sidewalks beneath Aurora still sit in an air pollution dump that pedestrians will avoid. Bicylists could speed through any new underpass, but a pedestrian overpass would be better. Sdot goes out of its way to make getting around Seattle worse for everyone. But they're really really good at deceiving the public.
Dear City of Seattle,

Having the courage to evaluate the resources available and to publicly allocate them in a way that will best serve the citizens in the long run is nothing to shy away from.

What do we want this community to look and feel like in fifty years, and how do we make that happen? This could well be a pivotal and crucial time that we all look back and say "Seattle stepped up, swallowed it's expectations, and did what was right." rather than remember this time as one of stalwart behavior and resource disposal.

In every aimed outcome, there is a time where one must choose to determine their history. This is that time, as Ms. Moon so eloquently states, and I couldn't be more thankful for her voice in this process.

Tunnels are for rodents. Drive on the surface like an upright mammal should!