Highway 99 tunnel: What’s being done to get Bertha unstuck

Objects encountered by the SR 99 tunneling machine

(Photos courtesy WSDOT, shared via Flickr)
That’s one of three photos WSDOT shared late today along with an update on what’s being done to figure out how to get “Bertha,” the Highway 99 tunnel machine, going again, one month after it got stuck. The update says the steel and boulder are some of the items that passed through Bertha and onto its conveyor belt before it stopped moving forward in early December; this section of pipe was removed, too. They still aren’t sure the widely reported pipe is the whole problem. So they’re drilling to continue investigating, as you might have noticed to the west what’s left of the Alaskan Way Viaduct:

SR 99 tunnel crews drilling to look for obstruction

Read the entire update here. What this will cost in terms of time and money has not yet been determined, since they say they don’t know yet what it’ll take to get tunneling back on track, but KIRO TV quotes the state Transportation Director as suggesting the tunnel contractor could be held responsible for not clearing the way first.

40 Replies to "Highway 99 tunnel: What's being done to get Bertha unstuck"

  • Seattlite January 7, 2014 (10:20 pm)

    Didn’t the City budget in the inevitable costs of delays? Didn’t the City do its homework and check out Boston’s Big Dig Debacle delay problems and cost overruns — come on City do your job. Don’t come crying to Seattle tax payers for more $.

  • JK January 7, 2014 (10:50 pm)

    I’m just surprised that Bertha couldn’t chew up all that junk and spit it in to a barge.

  • pupsarebest January 7, 2014 (10:54 pm)

    “the tunnel contractor could be held responsible”—-what a sick joke!
    No matter how many surprises/setbacks/delays/ad nauseum, which are so very, very obviously yet to come, NO ONE will ever be held responsible.
    We, the ciizens of Seattle, will be yoked with the burdens, financial and otherwise, of this unbelievably ill-conceived atrocity.
    Those who should rightly be held responsible will escape, scot-free, laughing all the way to bank.

  • WestSide45 January 8, 2014 (12:09 am)

    Let’s see—inept planning on construction projects, Socialist council member, machinists who believe Boeing won’t look for less expensive venues…what’s wrong with this area? Must be the fluoride in the water.

  • Seabreeze January 8, 2014 (12:20 am)

    What happens if the next obstruction is under a roadway, or worse yet a building?? Yikes!!

  • Jeannie January 8, 2014 (1:14 am)

    Who will pay for the giant plunger or enema bag to rectify this blockage?

  • dsa January 8, 2014 (1:19 am)

    I’d have to see the contract documents, but the contractor very may well take the hit on this one. If they were informed, it’s not changed conditions.

  • dsa January 8, 2014 (2:14 am)

    Ouch, I got through the first 155 pages of contract, but crashed when I opened the 236 pages of appendix. And that would not include the preliminary design documents, or the RFP.
    The bottom line is that WSDOT said the information was given to the contractor and the contractor says the casing was a surprise. I don’t have experience with design-build contracts, so I do not know who would be responsible. However I think it all depends on exactly what was shown the contractor.

  • redblack January 8, 2014 (5:44 am)

    this is a state project; but no, the city as a whole was quite prepared to roll over for the most expensive option under heavy pressure from various big-money private entities.
    if you’ll recall, there were exactly two voices in city government trying to convince anyone who would listen that this is an ill-conceived project and that seattle needed better contractual coverage in case of emergency. and one of them probably lost the mayor’s office because he made that very argument.
    instead, the state cut the size of the contingency budget by 20% in order to fit the project into its limited overall budget.
    picture stuffing a 20-pound turkey into a 10-pound bag, and then being able to come to seattle with your hand out when the bag breaks.
    WestSide45: love it or leave it.
    but here’s what’s really sticking in my craw:
    WSDOT thinks that those 2-foot-in-diameter, 200-pound rocks and some scrap metal stopped the world’s biggest boring machine?

  • Chris W January 8, 2014 (6:36 am)

    @WestSide45 The “Socialist Council member” was inaugurated less than 48 hours ago. Too early to include her in the list of what’s wrong with Seattle. Let’s see how she does her job. ..

  • Joe Szilagyi January 8, 2014 (6:45 am)

    Voters know who is responsible on the city level–a tiny minority of humans–and will be reminded heavily of this in 2015 at the rate things are going. Hopefully it was worth supporting the tunnel at all costs against McGinn and the majority of Seattle voters when you lose your $120,000 a year role in government.

  • Smitty January 8, 2014 (6:45 am)

    Scarily, this feels like the first of many.

    This one has taken months to resolve and will more than likely cost taxpayers more money fighting costs in court.

    It’s WAY too early to start with the “I told you sos”, but we are getting closer every day.

  • David January 8, 2014 (7:39 am)

    Hmm. How come the TWO tunnels (two separate tunnel machines) from Westlake, under the I-5, through Capital Hill, all the way to Husky stadium underground had not a single problem digging and came in under budget and on time. Huh. It can be done.

  • heather January 8, 2014 (7:57 am)

    I appreciated a comment posted in the original ‘Bertha Stuck’ WSB report educating people about how Bertha works when confronted by metal (being malleable it bends around the blades and gets jammed) but I’m still surprised. It looks like those pieces are only 1-2′ long.

  • dale January 8, 2014 (8:00 am)

    How come they kept insisting it was a large boulder when they had pieces of metal well casing? Liability issues?

  • Seattlite January 8, 2014 (8:19 am)

    redblack === Yes, that is true.
    “On May 12, 2009, Governor Gregoire signed Senate Bill 5758, authorizing $2.8 billion in state funds for a possible deep-bore tunnel.” In 2007, Seattle voted against the “surface-tunnel hybrid” and “elevated structure” but here we are anyway… My point is Gregoire signed the bill but Seattle is taking the brunt of the action more than anyone since it is in our front/back yards.

  • AG January 8, 2014 (9:26 am)

    Count me in the “this is the first of many” camp. Maybe it can be done, but digging under a huge section of city built on garbage, fill, and another level of underground city just didn’t seem like a great idea from the start. I predict sinkholes going forward as well. I hope not, and will be pleased to eat my words if it all goes well.

  • wetone January 8, 2014 (9:55 am)

    The voters were sold on the tunnel idea with very little real (honest) info and we can thank Governor Gregoire and Mayor Nickels for that. It was and is the worst and most expensive option possible. This tunnel does nothing to help traffic flow and will make it worse for W/S people and costly(tolls). No room for added growth, just as they did by building the Convention center over I-5, accessing downtown.
    It’s interesting how they retrofit the W/S freeway. There was many better and cheaper options that have been mentioned already that would not have the restrictions and cost the tunnel has. Not to late to change direction, we would still be money ahead and have a roadway that serves us much better. But that will never happen here in Seattle no matter what cost are.

  • dsa January 8, 2014 (10:06 am)

    Those rocks are interesting. Glacial rocks have heavily rounded edges. They are ground roundish from the massive weight of the moving glacier.
    But every edge of the two shown have what look like freshly fractured faces and very sharp edges. They are very likely pieces chipped off a bigger VW bug size boulder by Bertha’s cutting face.
    An example of the size of the huge rocks deposited by the glacier(s) is in the back country of Sun Lakes State Park in eastern Washington.

  • JoB January 8, 2014 (10:07 am)


    between the “it must be prefect” contingent
    and the “how can i make money if we do that” contingent
    we are left with the worst of all possible options
    typical Seattle planning

  • dsa January 8, 2014 (10:09 am)

    Wetone, I agree. The gov and mayor at the time wrecked the system instead of trying to improve it.

  • Smitty January 8, 2014 (10:21 am)

    “Hmm. How come the TWO tunnels (two separate tunnel machines) from Westlake, under the I-5, through Capital Hill, all the way to Husky stadium underground had not a single problem digging and came in under budget and on time. Huh. It can be done.”

    They are boring through completely different types of soil. The machine under 99 is dealing with all kinds of crap that was pushed down there and filled in with dirt. Lord knows what we we run into next.

  • Johnny Davies January 8, 2014 (10:49 am)

    Right Smitty. That’s what the smart guys/gals in charge should’ve already thought of and made plans for.
    They did have those thoughts, right? They did make those plans, right?

  • BlairJ January 8, 2014 (11:27 am)

    Hey, can I get some of those boulders for my yard?

  • AG January 8, 2014 (1:00 pm)

    ^^^ BlairJ: Best. Comment. Ever.

  • WestSide45 January 8, 2014 (2:04 pm)

    “WestSide45: love it or leave it.”—
    Seriously considering it, but my house is paid off and I don’t really want another mortgage. Besides, TR may be the only blog-master who cares about spelling and punctuation. I know I could read the WSB from anywhere, but I couldn’t run into TR in another state.

  • JayDee January 8, 2014 (5:19 pm)

    As I mentioned earlier, I supervise well drilling and strongly hope someone is looking for the next steel-cased abandoned well (abandoned wells are filled with bentonite clay and left in place and not removed–not required and generally not pursued). No one removes abandoned wells unless they have to due to cost. The STP project manager was being disingenuous when he said that they had to remove it, or baring that, that it had been removed.

    But there are more wells installed along the alignment–I think this was “Test Well 2” drilled using cable-tools, and there were others. I sure hope WashDOT and STP are looking at readily available records to ascertain where the others are.

    If this was soccer, it would be an “Own-goal”.

  • AC Tesla January 8, 2014 (6:30 pm)

    Many people are jumping on the “I told you” bandwagon so they can show to the world that they are smarter than every one else. I am one of those people that didn’t really care if we replaced the viaduct with another elevated highway or a tunnel even though I do think if costs were similar than a tunnel is the way to go.

    Mostly, I wanted people to stop flapping their gums and to do something. I hate the idea of that roadway collapsing and killing a hundred people like what happened in SF years back.

    I was glad that something was decided and construction had begun. The city had ten years of waffling, the time for debate was and is over.

    We’re building a tunnel. Get used to it. Enough of the criticism. You can say “I told you so” if the project goes over budget. I’m not really surprised that we have encountered a challenge. That’s because unfortunately, tunneling is risky because there simply is more unknown variables. That said, more and more tunnel projects are being completed ahead of schedule and on budget. The technology of mining and tunneling has advanced in leaps and bounds particularly in the last 20 years. So much so that TBMs like Bertha are building more subway, water and road tunnels today than ever before.

    Turkey, just completed a long bored tunnel under the Bospurus Strait. Madrid just built two large roadway tunnels under their city. Miami just completed two tunnels under their harbor. TBMS are building subways in a dozen cities in China The same is true in India, Russia, Brazil, Argentina, Malaysia and other countries. The reason is that pretty much all of these projects have extra contingency money and extra contingency time built into to them at the start.

    The argument that some are posing that it is stupid to build a tunnel in Seattle because Seattle is built on fill or that soil conditions are so unique as to make it impossible or too risky simply don’t know what they are talking about. Seattle actually has a long history of successful tunnel projects from the Burlington Northern Rail Project completed a hundred years ago mostly by hand to the 3 Mount Baker I-90 tunnels to the recently built Sound Transit tunnels that bored from Westlake Center up to Capitol Hill and then on to Husky Stadium. More unknown is the Ballard Siphon project recently completed where a TBM bored a 2.5 meter concrete tunnel underneath Salmon Bay.

    Frankly, I’m disappointed that Bertha is having problems. But I still believe that Bertha will be moving soon and this will just be blip on the radar screen.

    Mostly I wish people that comment would actually get a clue as to what they are talking about.

  • dsa January 8, 2014 (8:30 pm)

    Tesla, the big issue that I have with the tunnel is that it has less lanes and access than what it replaces.
    As for the Alaskan way viaduct, I have no concerns of it collapsing like the bay area one. I’ve seen both sets of plans and this one is very different than the bay bridge. Down there the decks slipped off the crossbeams when the earth shook because there was *no* mechanical connection (rebar) between the two. The Alaskan way viaduct decks are directly tied to the crossbeams. If you look closely, you will see that sections of the viaduct are actually independent bridges between columns.
    The nisqually quake cause one bridge to move out of alignment a little. But the roadway surfaces remained intact.
    Seattle and other waterfront opportunists seized the moment to scare the daylights out of the public.
    If the public needs something to be afraid of, beware of the existing evergreen point bridge. There is a good reason they went ahead with pontoon replacement before the EIS process was complete.

  • wscommuter January 8, 2014 (9:20 pm)

    AC Tesla … thank you for the sanity … ditto. Its so tedious, if utterly predictable to see the same, tired whining about the SR 99 project from those who never wanted it built in the first place.

    Oppose the project? Good for you and I respect your opinion. But many commenters here just bark from a lack of knowledge of the facts.

    dsa – The Seattle Fault runs right under the viaduct. A geotechnical report prepared almost 10 years ago noted that even a 6.0 temblor would collapse the entire structure. If that happened during the day, the number of deaths could be in the hundreds or worse. Just a fact.

  • dsa January 8, 2014 (10:13 pm)

    Ten years ago was at the height of the hysteria. Do you have the exact wording from that report? And I maintain that at the time it’s design was being confused with that which happened in the bay area. It pancaked.

  • redblack January 9, 2014 (5:56 am)

    The Seattle Fault runs right under the viaduct. A geotechnical report prepared almost 10 years ago noted that even a 6.0 temblor would collapse the entire structure.
    and yet it’s still standing there, dangerous as ever.
    when is the city going to fix the elliott/western/alaskan way connection and pretend that the whole 99 corridor doesn’t exist? just ignore it, fix the surface through routes, drop the viaduct already, and the state can take as long as it likes to play with their toys. and the state can eat the cost overruns and delays.
    which is exactly what mcginn was saying.

  • Ex-Westwood Resident January 9, 2014 (10:01 am)

    There were 5 options for the viaduct proposed after the 2002 earthquake, starting with the least expensive, they were:
    1. Minor repairs, but keep the structure the same
    2. Major rebuild/retrofit,
    3. Total tear-down, replacing the viaduct with modifing existing surface streets.
    4. Cut-and-Cover Tunnel. Demolish the viaduct, dig a trench along its former path and then cover with a “lid” much like I-90 on the west end of Mercer Island.
    5. Deep bore tunnel.
    The public were in favor of #1 and #2, as the were the least expensive and would add another 30 years to the life of the viaduct.
    City, County and State officials were in favor of the rest. IMO, not because of the cost, but in each of those remaining options the viaduct would come down opening the property on the east side of it to be developed with unobstructed views of Puget Sound, West Seattle and the Olympic Mts. The property owners and developers saw the $$$$$$ flash in front of their eyes, along with the Gov’t officials seeing the tax revenu from the new developments.
    The Gov’t used the “chicken little” scenario to push off #1 and #2 as undesirable and now we are stuck with the MOST expensive option.
    Now that is has begun we ARE committed to seeing it through no matter the delays or cost overruns.
    IMO, the only thing we can do now is to ensure the overuns don’t place an unreasonable burden on the tax payers or users of the viaduct. I think that ALL overuns should be taken from the tax revenues obtained from the developement of the waterfront from the increased proprty values by the viaduct being removed.

  • wscommuter January 9, 2014 (11:27 am)

    dsa – the report was prepared by Shannon & Wilson; a leading geotech firm here in Seattle. I can’t give you a specific date; I read it years ago. However, if you’re suggesting there was some “hysteria” hype to it, you’re grossly mistaken. The viaduct is founded on liquifiable soils. That it wouldn’t fail just as the SF bridge did may be technically correct – it will fail in a different way. Still lots of dead people, so I don’t understand your point.

    EWR … it is a simple truth – the “public” can’t and shouldn’t be entrusted with making complex policy decisions such as “how to solve the SR 99 problem” precisely because the vast majority of the “public” will never be educated enough about these kinds of complicated public policy questions to make informed decisions. Instead, the “public” votes on jingo-istic, dumbed-down political messaging. Many of the misinformed comments on this blog are good proof of that.

    Instead, in a democracy, we elect politicians to make these decisions and hope they get it right. Sometimes they don’t. Mostly they do, notwithstanding the general cynicism about government so prevalent today.

  • dsa January 9, 2014 (9:00 pm)

    I did not say the SW report was hysteria. I was talking about the mood the opportunists created.

    As for the Alaskan Way viaduct being in liquifiable soils, Charlie Chong and I talked back then to one of the original equipment operators of the viaduct, specifically a pile driver operator. He said the pilings were driven to refusal. Refusal would mean that they are firmly seated in the till and additional pounding produced no movement.
    And as for your comment to EWR about who should make the decision. I would trust those educated in civil engineering over governors or mayors for civil decisions.

    Incidentally, if you are worried about bridges, stay off them. I’m not kidding. The prestressed girder decks all around here are just sitting rubber pads placed on the crossbeams. They have added quake protection to many, but not like directly connecting the decks to the crossbeams with rebar.

  • Mike January 9, 2014 (10:58 pm)

    Ex-Westwood, although part of what you stated is accurate, not all of it is.
    “There were 5 options for the viaduct proposed after the 2002”
    That might be true, but there were proposals long before 2002 to replace the viaduct. From what I remember, around 1992 the initial discussions at the city and county level were being discussed about a tunnel to replace the aging viaduct.
    Here is a 1995 study on the deteriorating viaduct. http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/research/reports/fullreports/363.4.pdf
    That’s 20 years of bickering about what we should do. In that time, we had an earthquake that caused substantial damage to the viaduct requiring a patch to make it stable in normal conditions. When we do have a big quake, it’s toast now, not kinda…it’s going to crush anything under and near it.

  • dsa January 10, 2014 (1:36 am)

    The 1995 report does not state what design level (richter) they are rating the viaduct against.
    It’s no matter now, the deal is done. Ex Gov Gregoire, sealed the deal, eliminating the possibility of a six lane facility to replace the one that is there now.
    As I recall the state moved the alignment away from the seawall, which got them off the hook for replacing the seawall as part of the project. That item made it look like the costs were comparable. But now we Seattle taxpayers have the burden to pay for a new seawall ourselves plus the slap on the face of less lanes and access.

  • wetone January 10, 2014 (12:14 pm)

    Very well said dsa… I hope wscommuter is not tied to the city or state after their comment. But it wouldn’t surprise me. If our city and state had smarter more efficient building practices = less cost overruns, we might be able to fund our school system better. Maybe it would have helped me and others understand the complexity of the projects ;) I don’t see one positive thing that helps the public with the tunnel project especially since the sea wall is going through a new build. It would have been better to just shut down the water front for 3yrs and do it all at the same time. I do wander what kind of education a person has to make this statement ? scary

    EWR … it is a simple truth – the “public” can’t and shouldn’t be entrusted with making complex policy decisions such as “how to solve the SR 99 problem” precisely because the vast majority of the “public” will never be educated enough about these kinds of complicated public policy questions to make informed decisions. Instead, the “public” votes on jingo-istic, dumbed-down political messaging. Many of the misinformed comments on this blog are good proof of that.

  • Laughing Libertarian January 10, 2014 (10:42 pm)

    @WScommuter hahaha, spoken like a true liberal or more likely socialist… as if there is a difference these days in Seattle! The people are not smart enough? Just let the all knowing govt make all important decisions for you? Classic, I would spend less time worrying about the ability of others to make thoughtful decisions on the direction of the city they live in and more time educating yourself on matters of public interest.

    The fact is Bertha is stalled and rather than everyone bitching about wether it’s a good idea to have a tunnel. I for one would like to hear what is being done to resolve the issue… And are there going to be any additional costs to tax payers or will the contingency fund cover overages. It doesn’t matter who made decisions, our current city and state officials need to make sure the tax payers are informed.

Sorry, comment time is over.