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Company that built Bertha blames infamous pipe for early problems

It’s long been argued that an 8-inch-wide metal pipe wasn’t the only cause of the Seattle tunnel machine’s infamous breakdown in 2013. But that’s exactly the thing blamed by the creators of Bertha the boring machine.

Executives at Hitachi Zosen told The Seattle Times that Bertha was working perfectly before running into the metal pipe near South Main Street.

Related: Completed Seattle tunnel will be ‘one of the safer structures in town’

The tunnel project was delayed by more than two years after the machine overheated and stopped boring through soil. The Japanese company responsible for making Bertha told the Times that it spent thousands of hours getting it back up and running.

State crews performing groundwater studies are responsible for leaving the pipe in that spot.

However, it has been reported that the pipe wasn’t the only problem the machine ran into. Loose soil found at the Seattle waterfront were among the other hurdles the crews faced.

Dave Sowers, deputy program administrator for the Highway 99 tunnel project, told KIRO Radio that out of the machine’s launch pit, crews found soil to be loose, hydraulically-placed fill.

“So the ground was much softer, wetter, looser,” Sowers explained.

That all changed, according to state reports, when Bertha and contractor Seattle Tunnel Partners made it to about King Street, where the soil is much harder and sturdy. Since leaving the loose soil behind, there have been no reports of sinkholes — two were found prior to Bertha diving under the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Furthermore, a review board never determined whether or not the pipe caused the actual Bertha breakdown. It did, however, say the state should have better warned the contractor.

Hitachi Zosen estimates that the $80 million price tag of the machine could turn out to be higher, the Times reports.

For now, it seems as though the perception of the project and people’s faith in the machine has improved. During the Ballard Seafood Fest and West Seattle Fair, for example, questions about the project have been more positive, according to Laura Newborn, spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Transportation.

“They were really questions about expressing curiosity about the project, certainly about the timing of the project,” she said. “There were questions about how people were going to get around after the tunnel was finished. So there seemed to be much more presumption that the project was going to finish and that questions were focused on how it is going to change Seattle down the road.”

Fifty-percent of people who responded to a non-scientific twitter poll said they believe things seem better. And with Bertha boring at 40-feet per day when it is operating, that could very well be true.

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