Bye-Bye, Bertha: Infamous Drill Goes Belly-Up

What drills, breaks and costs $80 million?

The answer is Bertha, the world’s largest-diameter tunnel digging machine, currently stranded beneath downtown Seattle.

In the summer of 2013, Bertha began her historic journey beneath Seattle’s downtown waterfront. The goal of the project was relatively straightforward: replace the State Route 99 Alaskan Way Viaduct that was damaged in a 2001 earthquake.

When Bertha set out two years ago, the estimated completion date for the tunnel excavation was March 2015—just less than two months from now. But in December 2013, Seattle Tunnel Partners, the contracting team hired to design and build the tunnel, detected increased temperatures within the gigantic machine. Excavation was halted just 1,000 feet into her 9,270 foot route from Sodo to South Lake Union and has remained there since.

The stall has drawn the attention of national media, given the large scale of the project and the huge cost the blunder will likely have on Washington state residents. Opponents of the project have pointed to Bertha’s 11 percent completion rate and ridiculed the fact that it has been over a year since the drill was stopped.

STP workers have been digging a 120-foot deep access pit from which they will try to fix what is ailing Bertha’s front end. However, even this mini project is having unintended consequences. In December, digging stopped on the access pit after about 30 buildings in historic Pioneer Square neighborhood were inspected for damage. Soil beneath sagged an inch due to the nearby construction. Pumping ground water from deep beneath Bertha was said to cause the complications.

“I’m not sure anyone wants to talk about this because it’s a nightmare. There’s no happy ending,” Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata told the Seattle Times. “They need to outline the options.
What are the costs? How valid is the information we have right now? What’s going on? They should be able to explain to the public what the best Plan B is.”

By “they” Licatta meant Governor Jay Inslee and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, both of whom have distanced themselves from the project. Gov. Inslee did issue a statement in which he showed his continued support for the project, while admitting that any new information could potentially impact the future of the project.

Mayor Murray has been even more reluctant than Inslee to speak about the issues. He has largely declined to comment on the drilling, even after he held an emergency press conference to address the aforementioned soil sinking in Pioneer Square. He did speak to the project in year-end interviews with KING-TV, calling the project “still the best option” for Seattle.

Despite the increasingly problematic reality of the project, others have echoed Murray’s sentiment by considering the dangers posed by the present viaduct. In his statement, Gov. Inslee said it is “safe to drive on,” but in terms of structural integrity the overpass is lacking—he noted that if the Nisqually earthquake (2001) had lasted 10 more seconds, the viaduct likely would have collapsed. Therefore, he suggested, there is an immediate need to replace the ailing structure.

“It just seems like everything that could have gone wrong has,” said freshman Michael Kormeir. “I’m still in support of a new means of transportation by the waterfront, but I wish things could have gone
more smoothly.”

Proponents of the project hold that the tunnel remains the best option for Seattleites. The Washington State Department of Transportation estimates that 70 percent of the work necessary to complete the project has been done and that the malfunction of the $80 million drill is the project’s only major setback.

“I’m from Boston and I remember when the Big Dig project was going on,” said junior Emelia Clark, in reference to a similar project in Boston that aimed to replace old roads and bridges with a tunnel. “So much went wrong with that [project]—I think it took something ridiculous like 10 years and cost a fortune—but it wound up being a great thing for the city.”

Will may be reached at wmcquilkin@su-spectator.com

William McQuilkin

Will McQuilkin is a senior Communication major, hailing from a small California farm town in the San Geronimo Valley, often described as a hamlet. He has survived not one, but two surgeries on his right hand (pinky finger and thumb) due to baseball related injuries. His favorite candy is Sugar Babies.


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