Baumgartner, Ericksen bill would end Bertha, Seattle tunnel project

Bertha in better days, before digging began/ (Source: WSDOT)

Bertha in better days, before digging began. (Source: WSDOT)

OLYMPIA… It’s time to pull the plug on Bertha, the tunnel boring machine that has been stuck under downtown Seattle for more than a year without budging, say Sens. Michael Baumgartner and Doug Ericksen.

The Republican lawmakers introduced a bill Jan. 26 that would stop all spending on the Seattle tunnel project and launch a serious examination of rebuilding or retrofitting the existing Alaskan Way Viaduct along Seattle’s waterfront.

“We need to stop throwing money at a hole in the ground,” said Baumgartner, R-Spokane, prime sponsor of Senate Bill 5646. “I have no confidence that the Department of Transportation can bring this project in on time and under budget. Bertha was sold on a faulty promise of controlled cost and engineering predictability.  The project has neither. It’s time to shut it down and move to other alternatives.”

The more-than-$3 billion effort to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct was launched in 2011, amid promises that significant cost overruns were unthinkable and any additional costs would happily be borne by the taxpayers of the city of Seattle. Tunnel boring began two years later. But 1,026 feet into the dig, Bertha chewed into a thick metal pipe left by – of all agencies – the state Department of Transportation. Bearing seals failed, the machine began spinning its gears, and now the tunnel project is in the midst of an extraordinary deep-dig rescue mission that threatens the integrity of the existing Viaduct and the historic buildings of Pioneer Square.

A review board decided Jan. 22 the state should pay its contractors for tackling severe groundwater flows at the rescue pit – an expense that could reach $20 million. More and more, the Seattle tunnel project is sounding like the infamous Boston ‘Big Dig’ that was budgeted at $2.8 billion and wound up costing taxpayers $14.6 billion – $22 billion with interest, said Ericksen, R-Ferndale.

“From the very beginning this transportation project placed too much risk on the taxpayers of Washington,” he said. “A proposal to make this project a design/build public private partnership would have moved all cost overrun and liability issues onto the contractor.  When this proposal was defeated, all risk was moved to taxpayers.  I have great concern that this project is headed down a path that will lead to massive cost overruns.  At some point we must decide if we have reached the point where each dollar spent to continue is just good money chasing a bad investment. I think we are fast approaching or have reached that point.”

The bill notes that the engineering difficulties of the last year have added to the doubts about the project’s design and configuration, including the possibility that high tolls will shunt highway traffic onto city streets.

The measure directs DOT to exercise “all legal remedies available” to terminate the project in the most cost-effective way, and report to the Legislature by December 2016 about options for fixing or rebuilding the Viaduct. During a decade of debate over the future of the Viaduct, estimates for a retrofit were anywhere from a quarter to two-thirds of the cost of the tunnel, but DOT favored a costly reconstruction that made the tunnel look more attractive.

“At some point leadership involves doing hard things” Baumgartner said. “Ending this project now will save the state money.  It is more than clear that the Bertha tunnel is going to cost billions more.  The state needs to cut its losses and move on.  It was a risky idea to begin with.  Given what we know now, it’s a foolish idea to continue.”

As for Bertha, the best thing to do is to bury the $80 million drilling machine in place, Ericksen said. “You have to think it will be cheaper in the long run than undermining downtown Seattle,” he said.