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WSDOT secretary defends Bertha, Seattle tunnel despite longstanding concerns

WSDOT Secretary Lynn Peterson tells KIRO Radio while she's asking tough questions of the Seattle tunnel contractor, she remains confident it will ultimately be able to deliver as promised. (WSDOT image)

Washington’s transportation secretary is again defending the Seattle tunnel project, despite telling lawmakers in a letter Wednesday there have been a number of concerns since the tunneling machine launched in July.

WSDOT Secretary Lynn Peterson told lawmakers she has asked for answers to questions about the project including why the world’s largest tunneling machine was operated at “extremely high temperatures” before it was shut down in December after running into an obstruction, and what the contractor is doing to make sure it can deliver on the project as promised.

But Peterson refused to criticize the contract or the contractor during an interview Thursday with KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson, insisting WSDOT is just keeping oversight.

“If we weren’t strong owners, we wouldn’t be doing what we’ve been doing since the actual construction of the machine itself, which is ask the hard questions,” Peterson said. “We just want to make sure that before Bertha goes any further below Seattle that we have all the answers we need to feel confident that she can make the entire run.”

Peterson reiterated the contractor was chosen for its expertise, especially its proposal for the first 1,500 feet – considered the most difficult part of the project.

Sources with inside information on the project have told Monson they expect cost overruns on the project to approach $1 billion by the time it is completed. But Peterson refused to speculate and insisted part of her questioning now is to ensure the contractor meets both the timetable and the budget.

“We are going to get the verification and the verification is coming with our tunneling and tunnel boring machine experts that are going to be on site this week. And we’ll be able to get down into the tunnel and the machine and then we’ll have a better idea of exactly what needs to be completed before she moves forward.”

That could take some time. Workers are operating in a small air chamber under high pressure, limiting the time they can spend in front of the machine to just four hours at a time. Peterson said their safety is of the utmost concern.

“There’s a lot of people who are doing a lot of work on this machine that we have to be very, very safe about everything that we do,” she said. “And we have to be diligent about that. So it takes some time to create that safe work environment and then it takes some time for people to do the work in that air pocket.”

While Peterson was not secretary when the project was approved, she insisted the tunnel was the best solution to meet the two main goals – keeping SR 99 open throughout construction and beyond, and providing maximum mobility for transit and freight through the corridor.

“In the long run, what you’re going to find are the benefits of this project far outweigh this kind of small delay that we’re experiencing right now,” she insisted.

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