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WSDOT ‘pretty frustrated’ with yet another Bertha delay

Bertha is the world's largest tunneling machine, and has faced constant delays and repairs for nearly two years in Seattle. (WSDOT)

When news that Seattle’s massive tunnel project had been delayed again, it came as no surprise.

“I don’t know what to do anymore with this. This has to be getting tiresome for you guys,” said KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson.

“I’m sure everybody involved is getting embarrassed with all the delays,” Dori told Lynn Peterson, secretary of the Washington State Department of Transportation. “And I’m sure you’re building incredible contingencies into all of your timelines so there is not further embarrassment. Even with that, there’s another month delay. I continue to believe that this thing is never going to get built.”

While Peterson disagrees with Dori’s assessment that the tunnel will never be built, she shares his irritation with the project.

“We’re pretty frustrated,” Peterson said.

“We really wanted this tunnel to be up and opening in the time frame we originally intended,” she said. “We bought a tunnel, we do not own the machine. We, the taxpayers, do not own the machine. Seattle Tunnel Partners does.”

Related: Bertha is pieced back together

And those tunnel partners are setting the timeline, Peterson said, which originally had the boring machine slated for a Nov. 23 startup. But that has been pushed back one month to Dec. 23.

Why the new delay?

After Bertha’s cutter head was repaired above ground, it had to be lowered into its access pit to its body by slowly moving it with a crane. It took nearly two days to accomplish moving the 2,000 piece of machinery.

“When you have the giant head of a tunnel machine hanging from a crane, it will deform a bit from the weight,” Peterson said. “They are trying to put this machine on and make sure that when it goes back on, it fits … it’s a temporary deformation of the material.”

“But it means you have to jigger it back on and make sure those brand new seals they put on are actually going to work,” she said.

Putting the cutter head back into shape and mounting it back onto the body of the machine is what is causing the month-long delay. And WSDOT was wary of the timeline that Seattle Tunnel Partners originally boasted.

“We thought it would take a little longer, so we are not surprised by this and we don’t think that anybody in the Puget Sound is surprised that this is a hard task and will take a little longer,” Peterson said.

As with any delay, it means added costs; in addition to the already rising price tag of the Seattle tunnel project after two years of delays and repairs to the machine. Peterson said that steps were made to protect taxpayers prior to the project’s start, and that the total cost won’t be known until after the job is finished.

And will it get finished? Dori asked.

“I couldn’t guarantee the timeline,” Peterson said about how long the project has taken. “But this contractor must provide us a tunnel.”

Peterson said that the state is insured for $500 million for the project and Seattle Tunnel Partners are insured for $500 million. On top of that, the state recently filed a lawsuit against its contractor to recoup added costs. But WSDOT has asked that the lawsuit only be a placeholder for the time being, and wants the court to consider it after the tunnel is finished. Then it can be determined who owes what, and how much the long-delayed project will cost.

“We are going to see where we are at the end of the project, but as we started, we are lined up to protect the taxpayer,” Peterson said.

“When the project is complete, we will start to see all of these things get resolved,” she said. “We have put in our suit against the contractor to make sure we are protecting the taxpayer and we’ve asked that suit not be considered until after the project is complete, so we can focus on getting it completed.”

And if Seattle Tunnel Partners can’t complete the task, Dori has a contingency plan.

“They’ve discovered a 2,000 foot drug tunnel between Tijuana and San Diego,” he said. “It’s 2,000 feet and these guys had to build it in the dark of night without anyone knowing that they were there.”

“Bertha has thus far gone 1,000 feet,” Dori said. “My proposal is that we find El Chapo, the Mexican drug lord, and we get him up here to finish [the tunnel].”

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