Titled, Another Side of Bertha, this photo was taken in May of 2013. Later that year, after digging just 1,000 feet, Bertha stopped working. More than a year later, the machine still hasnt been fixed.
  • Washington State Department of Transportation
  • Titled "Another Side of Bertha," this photo was taken in May of 2013 as the machine was being prepared to "begin her tunneling journey." Later that year, after digging just 1,000 feet, Bertha stopped working. More than a year later, the machine still hasn't been fixed.

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In May of 2010, Mayor Mike McGinn and the Seattle Department of Transportation hired me to do an independent risk assessment for the city’s proposed deep-bore tunnel project. One of the reasons I was hired was that Mayor McGinn was very concerned about potential cost overruns, because he feared the City of Seattle and its residents would have to bear the costs if this state megaproject went over budget. My report, submitted in July of 2010, is a matter of public record, and gave a number of reasons for uncertainty regarding the proposed tunnel. I suggested, among other things, that the schedule and budget mentioned in 2010 were unlikely to prove realistic. In the years since, I have followed project developments via my numerous contacts in Seattle and in the infrastructure industry. Clearly, the citizens of the State of Washington, and in particular the citizens of Seattle, are now experiencing a drama that is playing out in a way most did not expect.

When I think about those average citizens, I imagine them looking at the near-14-year history of this project and wondering, “How did we arrive at this point?” The fact is, the history involved many intelligent, well-meaning people: members of agencies, engineering firms, individual experts, panels of experts. Well-meaning people can differ in their opinions and come to different conclusions when presented with the same data and evidence. Certainly there have been a lot of different opinions offered over the life of this project. The evidence today, however, is clear: The SR-99 Deep Tunnel Project is in trouble.

December 6, 2013—the day Bertha shut down after digging only 1,000 feet or so—is now receding in the rearview mirror, and the many project players are reacting in a variety of ways. There have been countless meetings, numerous statements and theories advanced as to what happened, projections offered on how long it will take to fix, suggestions posited on when tunneling will resume, proposals for who will pay for potential additional costs. In the interim, Bertha has only moved a few feet, and there is a major rescue operation under way to make very significant repairs to the tunnel-boring machine. The design and construction of a rescue shaft has been ongoing throughout 2014, and the repair scheme involves lowering the groundwater in the area surrounding Bertha’s current location, near Pioneer Square. That, in turn, has raised some recent issues with viaduct settlements, and settlement and cracking of adjacent buildings and infrastructure.

These developments are under study by WSDOT, SDOT, and Seattle Tunnel Partners, and could result in a temporary stoppage of the dewatering and excavation, for public safety reasons. The two main issues regarding the settlements are: (1) public safety for users of the elevated viaduct and occupants of the nearby buildings, and (2) cracking and structural damage to nearby buildings, utilities, and other infrastructure. The planned March 2015 tunnel-boring machine restart has been moved to April 2015, and a new tentative opening date for the tunnel has now been set for August 2017. The rescue operation itself is a significant construction project, and was not part of the original SR-99 project design. Some have suggested that this requires a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, but this issue was initially rejected.

If we were to create a full list of things we know about this difficult situation (starting from January 2001, when the Nisqually earthquake caused worrisome damage to the viaduct), it would be quite long. But the list of things we do not know is much shorter, and gives pause to any prudent observer who might be wondering how things are going to eventually turn out. These unknowns would include:

1. Can Bertha actually be repaired, and how long will it take?

2. Can Bertha, in her retooled state, actually complete the tunnel?

3. What will be the actual completion date of the project?

4. What will be the eventual total cost of the project?

5. Where will the funds come from, if eventually approved claims and change requests/orders exceed the current budget (including approved contingency funds)?

6. If SR-99, as currently designed, proves impossible to complete, for any number of reasons, is there a Plan B?

Without answers to these six points, there is considerable uncertainty going forward. Many eyes in the global tunneling industry are focused on Seattle because success of SR-99 will be a positive boost to large-tunnel credibility. Risk analysis and probability theory, along with other analytical schemes, have contributed significantly to the current state of SR-99. WSDOT’s Cost Estimation Validation Process (CEVP), which employs probability theory, was extensively used to justify the approach to, and eventual approval of, SR-99. So a prudent person might think that having a Plan B in place would be a reasonable idea. Such efforts may be under way, but little has been publicly noted regarding “options.” Perhaps looking at this situation a bit differently could be constructive.

Game Theory offers a different approach. It would term this situation a “dilemma”—i.e., a situation wherein unpleasant or undesirable choices must be made, to avoid the worst outcome. The current situation is not good, but it could get worse. The worst outcome would be two completed tunnel portals, with the ancillary approach systems in place, and no tunnel. In these complex dilemmas, involved players must make choices, knowing that others are also making choices, and the outcome will be determined in some prescribed manner by all the choices made. Game Theory searches for an optimum solution given the history, values, and philosophy of the participants. It will not find the “best” solution for an individual participant, but can avoid the worst outcome for all the participants. In many of these complex conflicts, the best that can be hoped for is to avoid the worst. It appears that a fair number of Washington’s citizens feel angry at the current situation, even suggesting that abandoning the project might be a viable option. There is evidence, however, that the majority are willing to wait until April 2015 (or whenever Bertha is “repaired”) and see if the project will then move smoothly toward completion. Given the project history to date, including the unprecedented 15-month (minimum, predicted) delay after completing just 10 percent of the tunnel, such an outcome might be considered by some as unlikely.

A prudent person might also think it is time to have a “truly” independent entity review the details of the current dilemma, and work with the involved parties to move forward in a safe, efficient, and cost-effective manner, with the aim being to avoid the worst outcome. Perhaps the elected officials (Governor Jay Inslee, Mayor Ed Murray, the city council, and others) who are charged with protecting citizens and taxpayers from financial, administrative, and technical adversity might look into an optimum resolution of the current problem, a Plan B. Just in case.

Mayor Murray, to his credit, has recently addressed this issue of a Plan B. He has said that it’s too early to consider a Plan B, and Bertha “can’t fail.” Criteria to suggest “failure” do differ among educated, well-meaning people. By my personal criteria, Bertha has already failed. Bertha has only moved a few feet since December 6, 2013, and we do not really know when she will begin moving again. In my experience, ANY realistic risk management approach to a serious project ALWAYS has a Plan B in hand. This situation reminds me of Mike Tyson’s famous quote, when told that his next opponent has a “plan” to beat him. Mike would reply, “everyone has a plan, until someone hits them in the mouth.” Bertha has hit WSDOT in the mouth.

Thom Neff, PhD, is president of OckhamKonsult.