A mound of loose dirt is illuminated with the golden evening sun. A shovel stabs into it, lifting its burden and tossing it away from the pit as the camera pans back. We see a helpless victim digging her own grave. It is the stuff of terror and repulsion in fiction and yet, this really happened.
Seattle is digging its own grave, not with a mere shovel but with a 326-foot long, 7,000-ton tunneling machine known as “Bertha.” Instead of being greeted with fear and aversion, the arrival of Bertha was greeted by a water display from the Seattle Fire Department, banners from the Washington State Ferries and a welcome sign on the outdoor Seattle Aquarium marquee.
The celebration came because many saw the tunneling machine not as a transportation-dollar gravedigger, but as a savior for Seattle’s future. Bertha represented a second chance at creating a waterfront without towering concrete, a waterfront worthy of the Emerald City.
Since the 1950s, Seattle’s waterfront has been marred by the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a double-decker highway that lay between the city and the Puget Sound. Drivers enjoy breathtaking views of Elliott Bay and the Olympics, while many in Seattle are stuck with views of cars driving on a structure with all the charm of Soviet architecture.
In 2001, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake caused enough damage to the viaduct that the need to replace it for the safety of the city and the preservation of transportation infrastructure became essential — so essential that elected officials spent the better part of the next decade debating how it should be replaced.
Washington State’s Department of Transportation found a silver lining in the delays. In that time, a bored tunnel alternative that had been deemed too expensive somehow “re-emerged as an affordable option.” Or at least an option that politicians could claim was affordable.
By that point, bored tunnel proponents now had a public numbed by continuous warnings of the viaduct’s immanent collapse should another earthquake strike and a public positively bored to death with the decade of indecision that followed the news that the viaduct needed replacing.
Critics of the tunnel divided between those who wanted a viaduct replacement and those who dreamed of a world without cars or freight and wanted a “surface street option.” This further enabled tunnel proponents to push the state into the most expensive option.
While the Pacific Northwest may be famous for its disbelief in God, the vision of moving 100,000 additional cars onto Seattle’s already impassable streets was certainly enough to make Washingtonians think of Hell on Earth.
Elected officials assured an uneasy public that concerns about cost overruns were misplaced. But just in case, the state legislature passed a bill to stick Seattle with cost overruns. Seattle taxpayers rightfully protested that the one time the tunnel option was on the ballot they turned it down and the replacement is a state highway not a city street. No matter, sticking Seattle with the bill was needed to get enough buy-in elsewhere to approve the project, so that’s what was going to happen.
And so, despite a massive backlog in road maintenance, a crumbling state ferry fleet (part of the state’s highway system), hundreds of bridges in need of repair or replacement (one Skagit bridge actually collapsed in 2013), an unfinished highway that discourages growth at the Port of Tacoma, additional needed mega-projects and a desperate need for congestion relief — despite all of that, Washington state politicians agreed to press forward with the tunnel.
With that decision, Bertha was manufactured and summoned to Seattle from Japan, like some great beast from a Godzilla movie, loosed upon the city to wreak havoc from below.
The world’s largest tunneling machine was put to work on July 30 of 2013. The Seattle Times reported Bertha was expected to progress “six feet per day to start and eventually accelerate to 35 feet per day under downtown.” Instead it operated only 36 days over the next four months and shutdown completely in December after advancing just over 1,000 feet. More than a year later, it’s still not fixed.
A giant pit is dug, a crane capable of lifting its gargantuan weight has been specially constructed, and now all parties wait to see if everything in the repair effort goes right and if Bertha can work again. But once she does, what then? While Bertha can chew through soil and rock, she can’t handle metal. And Seattle’s fill dirt could have more surprises in her path.
Assuming Bertha starts working again, her path will soon be even more difficult to access as she tunnels under buildings, for Bertha has no reverse. Bertha automatically reinforces the tunnel dug behind her with concrete reinforcements, so the tunnel left behind her is narrower than the head of the machine.
So if anything goes wrong, well, as Joe Biden would say, it’s a “big F’ing deal” with the “f” in this case standing for “financing.”
And what of the costs? On February 06, 2015 Canada’s Globe and Mail described the “projected $3.1-billion” price tag as “a number now almost meaningless.” That seems a pretty fair assessment considering we’re 1,025 feet into an 8,976 foot tunnel and we’ve already been delayed a year with what could amount to $190 million in cost overruns.
The state claims the overruns will have to be paid by the contractor. The company, of course, has other ideas — and lawyers.
The tunnel could cost hundreds of millions of dollars more or even billions more or it could fail to be completed altogether. Or a true miracle of megaprojects could occur and the tunnel will be completed with no further surprises.
Whatever the case, the fact remains that officials chose the most expensive and risky project all while knowing they were neglecting infrastructure around the state and within the city itself. What does that say about the elected officials responsible? Or is “responsible” even the right word?
And can anyone living outside the state of Washington really assert their state hasn’t shown a similar failure to prioritize? If so, they surely couldn’t deny it concerning the federal government.
We’ve become a self-governing society perpetually unable to prioritize, digging our own financial graves through unsustainable entitlement programs or ultra-expensive megaprojects. In a sense, we are all Berthas now.
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