The Year of Tunneling Ineptly

Meet ze monsta. Courtesy WSDOT
Meet ze monsta.
Courtesy WSDOT

It’s official: Bertha has now been stuck underneath Seattle for an entire year.

This past Saturday, December 6, marked the first anniversary of the date when Seattle’s infamous $800 million tunnel-boring machine was halted by a mysterious object, which was eventually revealed to be a long steel pipe that had become entangled in Bertha’s cutting head. The pipe was left underground from a previous Alaskan Way Viaduct-related project in 2002, also the work of the Washington State Department of Transportation. At the time of the abrupt 2013 delay, Bertha had tunneled merely one-tenth of the total length of the tunnel. (To be precise, 1,019 feet of the total 9,270 feet.) One year later, Bertha’s still stuck — and there’s now a new delay looming.

Saturday’s fiasco anniversary was accompanied by uncanny news from the day before, as reported by The Seattle Times:

“The Alaskan Way Viaduct and nearby soil have sunk 1.2 inches this fall alongside stranded tunnel machine Bertha, senior state engineers said Friday afternoon. The settling shows that the tunnel team is having trouble controlling the soil, crucial to protecting downtown as the Highway 99 tunnel project attempts to move ahead.”

On Sunday night, the news got worse: WSDOT announced that the viaduct is sinking unevenly, which could lead to structural damage. The settling is apparently a direct result of groundwater movement caused by the excavation of a 120-foot-deep repair pit being dug by WSDOT as part of the ongoing Bertha repair operation. Due to Sunday’s development, work on the repair project has now stopped until further notice. (According to WSDOT, the viaduct currently remains safe and open for driving.) The 1.7-mile tunnel, a four-lane replacement for the viaduct, was originally scheduled to open in late 2015, but now the latest estimate is late 2016.

And so, the Bertha fiasco continues. How did we get here? Lest we forget, current and former civic leaders in Seattle and Olympia were warned about the potential drawbacks of the tunnel option long before it was officially approved. Let’s go back ten years to 2004, when the tunnel option was already under discussion deep within the bureaucratic bowels of Olympia. There’s a telling anecdote from that year in the 2012 book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, by Washington, D.C.-based city planner Jeff 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.”

Thus, even though a group of city planners from several major cities agreed early on that the tunnel option was a bad idea for Seattle, Nickels wouldn’t listen — and neither did the civic leaders who would cheerlead for the tunnel later that decade, despite significant popular opposition. Three of the primary sponsors of the tunnel option during early discussions in Olympia now hold crucial positions within Seattle’s city government: Mayor Ed Murray, Deputy Mayor Kate Joncas, and City Council member Tom Rasmussen. Murray backed the tunnel as a state legislator, Joncas backed it as president of the Downtown Seattle Association, and Rasmussen backed it as a city council member.

Now, as another municipal election year approaches, it remains to be seen whether the ongoing Bertha fiasco will be a critical issue in Seattle’s first-ever district-based city council elections.

Meanwhile, the Bertha fiasco continues. When will it end?

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