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Happy Bertha-Day!

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I’ve written before about one of the most ill-conceived infrastructure projects in the country currently–a plan to build a deep bore tunnel under downtown Seattle so highway 99 (currently an elevated freeway as functional as it is unacceptably dangerous) can, theoretically, bypass downtown Seattle efficiently. If this project managed to be completed on time and under budget, it would not come close to justify the project; it will be useless for a majority of users of the viaduct today, as its most common use is to get to and from downtown. Given that the technology in use was experimental–the kind of tunneling machine they’d be using had never been used for a tunnel this size before, and the condition of the soil so close to Puget Sound raised serious concerns–the odds of a such an outcome were, already quite slim for such megaprojects, were surely slimmer than usual for this one.

It was a year ago that “Bertha” the tunneling machine stopped working, around 1019 feet into her planned 9270 foot journey. Since that day, the news about Bertha has been, alternatingly, vague, implausible optimism and alarming admissions that reveal how uncertain the future of this project actually is.  From January to April, we went from “Bertha will start drilling again next week” to “We plan to begin drilling again in March 2015, once we dig a vertical pit to access the machine so we can fix it.” Various theories about why Bertha stopped working were presented as fact, only be to later be revealed as mere speculation. In April, the plan was to complete the new tunnel to Bertha by September, conduct repairs over the Winter, and resume boring in March. It’s now December, the tunnel to Bertha is only 60% complete. This has yielded an admission that drilling might not resume in March–we might have to wait until April for that. As grim as the news is, it’s actually quite lucky the machine broke down where it did, as a Popular Mechanics article reported:  “To be honest, if Bertha was going to break down anywhere, that’s about the best possible place it could have happened on the job—they’ll get her fixed,” Amanda Foley, North American editor of Tunnelling Journal, told me in an email.” Further alone, she’ll be under skyscrapers; access of the sort that’s being attempted now will become difficult to impossible. This raises the stakes a great deal for fixing whatever is wrong with it, of course–it’s not at all clear how the project could be completed if it gets stuck again further down the line. David Kroman has a well done account of Bertha’s (first?) lost year.

The point of all this, of course, was to produce an alternative to the unsafe viaduct freeway. Damaged by a 2001 earthquake, it’s a another Cypress Street waiting to happen.  Which is what makes Bertha’s anniversary news –that the segment of the viaduct near the vertical tunnel sunk and additional 1.2 inches in two weeks in November alone particularly alarming. Earlier this year WSDOT told the council that the viaduct’s sinking over an additional inch may cause serious safety concerns. So the WSDOT spokesman’s line here–“don’t worry, everything’s safe, and we’re going to try and figure out if it’s actually safe ASAP” isn’t terribly reassuring.

One of the many ironies is that this project is a direct consequences of the viaduct’s unsafe condition; other than that it’s an ugly-but-highly functional piece of infrastructure. In addition to being the worst available option for replacing the viaduct’s functionality (a cut and cover tunnel and a surface replacement+enhanced transit option would have served far larger percentages of the population of vehicles utilizing the viaduct today), it was the worst available option for safety as well, as both of those project would have enabled the viaduct to be torn down sooner. The failures of the project to replace it are both ensuring it’ll probably remain up longer, while quite possibly making it less safe in the interim.

Transit advocates are often accused, absurdly, of engaging in a “war on cars”. If we were indeed committed to such a war, I’m not sure we could have come up better with anything than this. The overruns will likely cannibalize WSDOT’s budget, including all manner of road repair and construction projects (some of which are necessary and useful) for the foreseeable future. If, as appears increasingly likely, the viaduct must be shut down before the tunnel is ready, transit will become even more crucial for accessing downtown, and far fewer cars will be able to do so with any efficiency at peak travel times.  Meanwhile, Sound Transit’s tunneling project for light rail, using well established, off the shelf tunneling technology and conservative cost estimates, chugs along ahead of schedule and under budget, and Seattle just voted itself a tax increase to fund more bus service.

 

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