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Remembering broken promises about Bertha

Stories told about the tunnel-boring machine didn’t come true

WSDOT/Flickr

Nearly four years after it began its two mile journey underneath Seattle, the Highway 99 deep bore tunnel machine, aka Bertha, drilled to its final destination in South Lake Union yesterday. It marks a major milestone for the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project, which has been an ongoing source of local, regional, and state political drama for more than 16 years.

In February 2001, an earthquake damaged the existing Alaskan Way Viaduct running from Belltown to SODO. Years of debate ensued about whether to tear it down and build a new viaduct, dig the world’s widest-diameter tunnel, or just use a surface street.

But by 2009, then-Governor Christine Gregoire, the Washington Department of Transportation, most of the Seattle City Council, business leaders, and others were pushing for a deep-bore tunnel. Then-Mayor Mike McGinn, environmentalists, and alternative transportation advocates argued in favor of the surface street option with accommodations for transit.

The anti-tunnel argument was in part against having a highway of any kind running through the city, especially one that cost over $4 billion. It was also an argument that the tunnel was too risky.

It was very possible that the largest deep bore tunneling machine in the world could get stuck in Seattle’s soft, unstable soils. It was likely that the tunnel megaproject—as is the case with nearly every transportation megaproject—would have cost overruns.

These concerns weren’t just conjecture; they had independent engineering studies and examples from other cities to point to.

Tunnel proponents dismissed the arguments as political fearmongering and assured the public the project would be done on time and on budget.

Then-Governor Christine Gregoire declared regardless of what happened, the damaged Viaduct was coming down by 2012. It still stands today:

It's coming down in 2012. I'm taking it down—the middle. That's the timeline. I'm not going to fudge on it. And if we don't have some alternative by then, boy are we going to have a mess on our hands because it's coming down.

In 2010, Gregoire said of cost overruns:

It's a hypothetical, it has no bearing. There's no reason to expect cost overruns.

Then-City Councilor Jean Godden wrote an op-ed in 2010 dismissing McGinn:

The hope that the mayor might give up on his mission to make ‘cost overruns’ a perennial rallying cry is probably an empty one. Like the ‘birthers’ who refuse to give up on their campaign to make the president seem an alien, the ‘cost overrunners’ are hell bent on spreading their propaganda, even after it has been repeatedly revealed as an empty threat.

The same year, then-City Councilor Richard Conlin declared with confidence that delays and cost overruns were unlikely:

We have done our due diligence and a majority of the Council believes strongly, that the risk of overruns has been distorted and overblown in order to kill the project. We are working in partnership with the state to ensure that the project is completed on budget and on time. Only with true collaboration and working in partnership can large projects be completed on budget.

In 2011, WSDOT Secretary Paula Hammond told the New York Times:

Everybody wants to declare that Boston built a tunnel, Washington’s building a tunnel, therefore you’re going to have the same problems they did and you’re going to come in over budget. I declare that not true. This is Washington’s opportunity to demonstrate how to build a megaproject with strong management, risk management, accountability, and to deliver a project on budget and on time, to show people that it can be done.

But they were wrong. Bertha drilled from July 2013 to December 2013. Then the drill started breaking. It managed to drill a few feet per day until February 2014 when it broke down completely. It took until February 2016 to get the drill moving again (the whole project was supposed to be drivable by December 2015).

Unsurprising, given the delay, there are now at least $149 million in cost overruns, and the project isn’t slated to be complete until 2019. In addition, Seattle Tunnel Partners is suing the state for $480 million for the cost of repairs and delays. The city of Seattle is also suing Seattle Tunnel Partners over damaged utilities.

Of course, hindsight is 20-20. But the project’s risks were clear before Bertha ever started drilling and a determined group of interests chose to ignore them.

The Highway 99 tunnel certainly won’t be the last megaproject in the world, or likely even Seattle. When the next one comes around, it’ll be worth remembering the broken promises of these Washington politicians and reminding yourself to take megaproject boosters with a few large grains of salt.