Seattle’s Big Dig Still Isn’t Digging
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Look on the bright side, Seattle! If the big-bore tunnel to replace highway 99 has to be scrapped, the cement-reinforced completed remnant may make a perfect bomb shelter should North Korea’s mad dough-boy of a dictator ever act on his threats to bomb the West Coast.

I know it’s not much, but it’s the best I could do.

Seattle’s tunneling project is an arranged marriage for Seattle. Seattle’s voters rejected the project the one time it was on the ballot, but elected officials, playing the parental role, saw what was best, and arranged the union anyway.

The dowry promised was a new waterfront for the core of downtown, a bonanza of development possibilities, with parks, condos and car-free views all in the mix. Sadly, however, the marriage has yet to be consummated. The drill just keeps getting stuck.

After just 1,025 feet into its 9,270-foot journey, Bertha, the 7,000-ton miracle of human ingenuity that is the deep-bore tunneling machine created specifically for this project, stopped working. A metal pipe stood in its path, and while dirt, rock, and stone are no match for Bertha’s power, metal is its Kryptonite. State officials dispute the metal pipe they neglected to cite in primary documents (but did cite in secondary documents) could be the primary cause of the damage that stalled Bertha. Which makes sense, since there seems to be a murky aspect as to who will ultimately get stuck with the repair bills, especially now that the project’s Dispute Review Board has found that the state should have warned Seattle Tunnel Partners of the pipe.

Bertha is finally undergoing repairs. Repairing the massive machine is vastly more difficult than instinct would suggest. Due to the way the machine works, creating reinforced concrete walls behind it as it digs, means it has no reverse — the tunnel is too narrow to go backwards. So a pit had to be dug to repair it. When the massive head of the beast was lifted out of the pit via a special crane, the task was hard enough, but in the future that task may be impossible. Further in on its mission it is digging under Seattle’s streets and buildings. Digging a pit to save it won’t be an option.

But officials who have been wrong on time-lines, repairs, and costs now assure taxpayers that that is not going to be a problem going forward. A small comfort if there ever was one.

New predictions on the completion time-line are expected this month. Digging is expected to resume in August. Oh, did I write “expected”? I meant “hoped for.” Since the August date is overly optimistic and all the supposedly realistic projections have been unreliable, why expect a Bertha-sized miracle of accuracy now?

Damage to Bertha has been determined to be worse than expected, but not beyond what’s been planned for. Which sounds better than a description of the entire project so far.

So far, the Dispute Resolution Board has determined the state should pay for some surprises and the Seattle Tunnel Partners others, but since determinations aren’t binding, final costs reportedly may not be known for years. Correction: Who pays the final costs may not be known for years.

Maybe the worst is over. Maybe the worst is over, and the rest is clear sailing. But what if it’s not? What if the demons of Boston’s Big Dig are now in Seattle? Is Seattle or the State of Washington up to paying the costs? At what point do you wash your hands of the project and refuse to throw good money after bad?

Washington’s governor is more obsessed with global warming than the over-heating of Bertha. And the only declared GOP candidate for governor so far has expressed confidence in the completion of the tunnel. Thus right now there is no line being drawn at which officials say, “Beyond this we will not pass!” All that’s known is that when Bertha returns, repaired with new and improved capabilities, it has more than 8,000 feet still to dig.

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