Seattle is stuck with a broken boring machine called Bertha. The 7,000 ton apparatus is part of a $3.1 billion public works project called the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement. Bertha’s task is to create a 1.7 mile tunnel that would allow Seattle’s commuters faster and safer road access.
The section of Washington State Road 99 that is currently in use has been deemed unsafe should heavy seismically activity occur. Funds to pay for the new road have come from higher toll and gasoline taxes as well as state and federal funding.
Bertha is longer than a football field. It was move and assembled in Seattle at a cost of $80 million. After boring only 1,000 feet, Bertha got stuck in early December when it struck a section of steel well casing. The pipe damaged Bertha’s front cutter head. All tunneling has stopped and will not resume until March 2015.
Seattle’s Mayor Ed Murray said he was concerned that the project is not moving forward. People have gotten frustrated with the slow progress.
Todd Trepanier, a monitor with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) found himself skeptical and apprehensive concerning the lack of progress. He wants to see Bertha moving dirt as opposed to sitting idle.
Part of the problem centers on who will pay Bertha’s repair bill. In February, Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP) who own Bertha requested $125 million from the state. They cited WSDOT with failing to remove the steel obstruction. WSDOT rejected the request. There is now a pending court case to determine which party is responsible for repairing the broken boring machine now stuck in Seattle.
How to repair Bertha is also in question. STP wants to dig a pit 120 feet deep to access the front end of the machine. STP crews would then raise the front end and place it upon a concrete slab for repairs. That plan is currently on hold due to a separate lawsuit.
Democracy Workshop, a local Seattle watchdog group, filed a federal law suit over the construction project. They named the City of Seattle, WSDOT, and the Federal Highway Administration as defendants. The suit called any work on Bertha as not part of the original cost of the new highway. Nothing should proceed without an environmental study. The pending litigation and environmental impact study would cause further delays.
Elizabeth Campbell heads the Democracy Workshop. She has been a vocal opponent of the new highway from its inception. The Seattle native gathered enough signatures for a ballot initiative that would have stopped the construction of the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement back in 2011. The referendum failed.
Campbell believes the public would be better served by having WSDOT retrofit the current roads. She has called the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement the most expensive choice presented to Seattle commuters. The campaign that transformed Bertha into a cute cartoon character is nothing more than a monstrous machine. She is pleased that Bertha has stopped working.
The tunneling portion of the project was budgeted for $1.4 billion with an estimated completion time in November 2016. Bertha could still finish its portion of the work on time once the repairs are made and no further delays occur. For now, Bertha the boring machine is broken and Seattle drivers are stuck with congested roadways and higher taxes while the litigation plays out.
By Brian T. Yates