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Expert report criticizes Seattle tunnel but still confident of budget

An expert review panel concludes that the Highway 99 tunnel project can still be finished on time, despite significant delays, so far.

The panel appointed by Governor Jay Inslee has been studying documents and interviewing project leaders for more than three months.

The 43-page report issued Thursday concludes that the “current budget is likely sufficient” to complete the project, in the first half of 2016. The contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners, promised completion of the tunnel project by the end of 2015.

Gov. Inslee said the report suggests confidence moving forward with the tunneling project, despite problems so far. “We need to be a vigorous, insistent customer of the contractor,” said the Governor. “There are provisions in the agreement with the contract that are fully protective of taxpayers,” he assured.

The expert panel believes savings on other parts of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project can keep overall project costs within the $3.1 billion budget.

The report also notes what it calls “communication problems and a strained relationship between the state and the contractor for the Seattle tunneling project.

Todd Trepanier, project manager with the Washington Department of Transporation, says he hasn’t read the report yet but spoke generally about the state’s relationship with Seattle Tunnel Partners.

“When you have a contract of this magnitude, there’s going to be appropriate tension that takes place between the owner and the contractor,” he said adding there are open lines of communication between the state and the tunnel contractor.

The expert review panel “observed some confusion from persons internal to the WSDOT organization and with its tunnel partner, STP, with respect to who has the authority and accountability for various aspects and components of the project,” according to the report.

“If there wasn’t a report in play and you asked me a question: is there confusion on this project, I would answer there is not confusion on this project,” said Trepanier. “This project and the responsibilities and what resides with STP and what resides with DOT is well understood.”

The tunneling machine known as Bertha has been stalled since early December. A plan is due Friday for how to repair suspected damage to bearing seals. It’s expected to take months before tunneling can resume.

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