DOT to lawmakers: Have patience with Bertha

The Seattle TimesJanuary 10, 2014 

Bertha, the State Route 99 tunneling machine, grinds through the earth on the first leg of her journey under downtown Seattle in August 2013.

WSDOT

Highway 99 program Administrator Todd Trepanier doesn’t say the word “patience,” but that’s the theme of an e-mail he sent Thursday to state lawmakers and the Transportation Commission, about the push to get tunnel machine Bertha moving again.

The giant drill has been stranded 60 feet underground since Dec. 6, shortly after hitting a steel pipe. Trepanier mentions and then downplays a project-team member’s remark that it could take “one month” to resume drilling, without offering his own conjecture. Megaprojects are inherently uncertain enough that this sort of time estimate should be treated as an educated guess anyhow, rather than a fact.

Trepanier raises two other points that are more subtle, and more meaningful:

He calls the wayward 8-inch diameter steel pipe in front of the machine “a contributing factor,” which raises the ominous question of whether more problems lurk in the soil or in the machinery. “The overall cause won’t be known until our investigation is completed,” he said.

Second, he notes that if the blockage can’t be removed through the vertical shafts, which are being drilled this week, the shafts would be filled to build a deep concrete wall, to “create a safe environment” for workers. Such a wall would restrain loose soil and groundwater that would otherwise collapse into the cutting face during work there. In December, Chris Dixon, director of the Seattle Tunnel Partners contracting team, said such a barrier would take several weeks to build, even before sending a team in.

For the time being, the delay hasn’t busted the budget — but taxpayers could potentially take a hit if these delays drag on. The project’s $2 billion plan includes a $40 million reserve for so-called “extraordinary interventions,” in which tunnel-trained divers remove surprise blockages or make emergency repairs to the cutter.

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