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Big Dig West


I’d be a strong opponent of this project if there was a 100% chance it would come in on time and on budget, and usage projections were guaranteed; best case scenario it’s an incredibly wasteful misallocation of transportation resources. If you asked people how ~3 billion dollars could be best spent to improve Seattle and the Puget Sound’s transportation woes, would anyone have actually said “build a tunnel that allows ~50K motorists a day to pay $7 dollars for the privilege of bypassing downtown alltogether”?

But, of course, the chances that it wuold come in on time and on budget have always been virtually nil, and the fact that Seattle alone is on the hook for cost overruns, an utterly unique arrangement for WSDOT projects, makes this all the more appalling. I can’t decide if I should be rooting for huge problems now in the hopes that the project gets cancelled or for a relatively few issues and delays such that Seattle’s burden won’t be too great. At any rate, even I didn’t realize just how incompetent WSDOT was:


WSDOT’s other problem is a pipe blocking “Bertha”, the tunnel boring machine building the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement. Bertha became stuck whilst boring and apparently there are a lot of complications getting the entire pipe out because of Bertha’s size and position relative to the pipe and its location.

What makes pipe incident so frustrating is that WSDOT itself put the pipe there. And not for some other project, but for research testing the soil and groundwater conditions for this very tunnelling project.This really raises a lot of questions about WSDOT’s culture and efficacy dealing with contractors. The Seattle Times again (different article):

The 2002 well site was listed in reference materials provided to construction bidders, as part of the contract specifications.“I don’t want people to say WSDOT didn’t know where its own pipe was, because it did,” said state spokesman Lars Erickson. However, Chris Dixon, STP’s project director, said the builders presumed it had been removed.

Who’s reviewing these plans? Isn’t some one there to ensure the plan has taken into account all the information? Who’s there to look at the tunnel plan, check against the soil map they presumably used to plan the tunnelling and say “hm, better make sure this pipe has been removed”. No big deal? We’re only spending billions of dollars here. And why is WSDOT leaving 119-foot steel pipes in the ground anyway? By my very rough calculation, the pipe itself is $15,000 worth of scrap steel** (I’m sure WSDOT spent much more). Now we’re wasting millions getting out of the ground.

I don’t know if this project is actually worse than lighting 3 billion on fire. (There’s actually some very inefficient Keynesian stimulation for trying to build it). But I have very little doubt this project is significantly worse for Seattle and the region than a 3 billion dollar helicopter drop.

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