Bertha: On the Pipe

Behold Bertha, the billion-dollar boondoggle baby. WSDOT Flickr
Behold Bertha, Seattle’s billion-dollar boondoggle baby.
Photo: WSDOT Flickr

Concerning Seattle’s most recent deep-bore tunnel-related fiasco, two questions.

First, regarding the Washington State Department of Transportation: What were they smoking?

Second, regarding the City of Seattle: Well, how did we get here?

I allude here of course to last week’s discovery that the world-class (or at least world-famous) blockage of Bertha was caused not by some ancient monolithic artifact, but rather by a piece of steel pipe, left buried underneath Alaskan Way not by apocryphal aliens, but rather by WSDOT itself, back in ancient 2002.

Despite the possible recent suspicions of certain tunnel skeptics, the pipe in question was not a contraband implement used in the tunnel planning process (in other words: no green “smoking gun” here), but rather a remnant of a groundwater-monitoring project, apparently left there by WSDOT workers in the wake of the 2001 Nisqually earthquake.

As the extent of this fiasco slowly emerges, it will be instructive to dig deep (pardon the pun) into the second question above. I’ll start here with a revealing anecdote from the earliest stages of the planning that ultimately led to the decision to build the deep-bore tunnel. That anecdote was shared by Washington, D.C.-based city planner Jeff Speck in his 2012 book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. According to Speck:

“[I]n September 2004 . . . Seattle’s Mayor Greg Nickels came to the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, and brought along the Alaskan Way Viaduct as his planning challenge. Like [San Francisco’s] Embarcadero, the two-deck, six-lane viaduct had been damaged in an earthquake and needed replacement. The state DOT proposed replacing the highway with an elegant surface boulevard . . . and a $4.2 billion highway tunnel.

“‘That sounds perfect — just cut the tunnel!’ the planners around the table shouted in unison. ‘But where will all the traffic go?’ asked the mayor. ‘Not to worry!’ we responded. But we apparently weren’t very convincing, as Mayor Nickels returned to Seattle still committed to the tunnel.”

Welcome once again to the “Seattle process,” where insider intransigence all too often trumps collective wisdom. “Same as it ever was,” indeed.

I’ll soon have more serious commentary to share here at The Seattle Star concerning the history of Bertha’s conception and creation. Meanwhile, in honor of pipes of various private utilities and/or fiascos of various public expenses, I leave you now with a most appropriate Grateful Dead classic.

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