Tunnel-trouble update: Crews think they’ve found at least part of what’s blocking Bertha

While WSDOT says they’re not saying this is the only thing that stopped the tunnel-boring machine four weeks ago – they’ve gone public this afternoon with a discovery. No, not a huge boulder, or train car, or UFO, or whatever your favorite guess might have been. According to this brand-new update, they have found a pipe that was submerged by WSDOT itself more than a decade ago. From the update:

On Jan. 2, the water pressure was low enough and enough soil was removed from the excavation chamber to inspect the top 15 feet of the chamber.

This inspection showed an 8-inch-diameter steel pipe protruding through one of the many openings in the cutterhead. We believe the steel pipe is a well casing installed by WSDOT in 2002 after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake to better understand how groundwater flows through this area. The location of this pipe was included in reference materials in the contract.

We also believe at least some of the obstructions found by the exploratory holes are pieces of the 2002 steel pipe, which could be a contributing factor in the delay of boring.

So while the tunneling contractor and WSDOT are taking pains to say this might not be the ENTIRE problem, they are also figuring out now how to remove that pipe for starters. As the full update says, they don’t know yet what this means to the schedule, which had projected tunnel completion by the end of 2015 and Alaskan Way Viaduct teardown starting after the tunnel opened.

6:30 PM: More followup on today’s disclosure, via Seattle Times (WSB partner) transportation reporter Mike Lindblom.

40 Replies to "Tunnel-trouble update: Crews think they've found at least part of what's blocking Bertha"

  • onion January 3, 2014 (3:10 pm)

    Darned! I was really hoping for the UFO.

  • smokeycretin9 January 3, 2014 (3:12 pm)

    DOH! “We knew it was there, we just forgot about it”

  • BlairJ January 3, 2014 (3:30 pm)

    I hope the State doesn’t charge Seattle for any cost overruns due to WSDOT’s pipe.

  • nemobeansmom January 3, 2014 (3:52 pm)

    Is it this weekend we’re supposed to have those King Tides??? Just wondering if these tides affect where they’re digging?

    Sure hope no one gets hurt/killed by this tunnel digging, my Dad who would had been 97 this year says it’s all landfill there and as far east to 4th Ave too and that he used to ice skate where they’re digging.

  • Johnny Davies January 3, 2014 (3:55 pm)

    Wait a sec.. a custom built machine that is supposed to generate enough torque to slowly chew a hole through anything underground, seen or not, is stopped by an old steel pipe huh? There was the potential for the machine to be stopped by unknowns in its path??
    Sorry to be a doubter, but methinks something else is a’foot.

  • w.s. maverick January 3, 2014 (3:56 pm)

    typical wsdot can’t get anything right 520 or a tunnel us people from west seattle will be paying the cost. when will washington get it right

  • WestSeaSince76 January 3, 2014 (4:07 pm)

    1.3 billion dollar and counting debacle, this is just the beginning. No downtown exits, tolls and less capacity then the 1953 structure. Do you think the tunnel will handle Seattle’s growth for another 61 years? You don’t have to be an urban planning wizard to figure out it’s not going to solve the transit problem. Remember these are your tax dollar$ at work :(

  • jim clark January 3, 2014 (4:53 pm)

    As far as the tides affecting their digging. My father used to work in a warehouse on 4th and Holgate. It had a freight elevator that had a pit in it that would get a couple of feet of water in it everytime there was a high tide.

  • Virgil Tipps January 3, 2014 (4:55 pm)

    I miss the days when the United States was a nation of innovators, facing great engineering challenges with alacrity. Nowadays it seems like too many of us think we’re experts, sitting on our asses in dark rooms in front of computer screens, spewing cynicism and negativity. Oh and anyone who thinks private cars will be part of Seattle’s transportation priorities 61 years from now has absolutely no idea what they’re talking about.

  • Enough January 3, 2014 (5:06 pm)


  • West Seattleite January 3, 2014 (5:06 pm)

    @davies, maverick, 76: Why do I read comments on internet posts?

    Too often they’re uninformed, inflammatory, and as a result, depressing.

    Future: I weep for thee.

  • Alex January 3, 2014 (5:12 pm)

    I remember reading the story of it stopping a month ago. It said they were going to look and see what obstructed it. WHY DID THAT TAKE A MONTH?

  • JayDee January 3, 2014 (5:12 pm)

    @ Johnny Davies: strange, but true. Steel is malleable and would deform and break into pieces. I oversee drilling these types of wells in real life, and I am not surprised. Yes stones are hard, but brittle…

    Now I hope someone is looking for the rest of the story….these wells are usually installed in multiples, and as long as Bertha is following a street right of way.

  • David January 3, 2014 (5:26 pm)

    It’s all physics. The cutting head (as in all tunnel machines) is NOT designed to cut through “anything” but through dirt and rock. Rock is very fragile and can be chipped and cracked. Metal is ‘soft’ and twists and turns and can get ‘caught’ in odd places and is oddly harder to cut through in many cases. Harder usually means less likely to deform but therefore more fragile. In building you don’t want “super hard” materials because they could “shatter”. You WANT a certain degree of flexibility. It’s a ratio. It shouldn’t be a problem much past this as the tunnel ‘drops’ and the land rises and it becomes 100+ feet underground and under all of these kind of ‘test/sample’ wells. This landfill/shoreline area was always going to be the tricky area. Closest to the surface and all. Remember the “light rail” from downtown to UW? Two tunnels, and not one hitch. So it’s just dumb luck sometimes.

  • pupsarebest January 3, 2014 (5:32 pm)

    No one need be cynical to assess this project a boondoggle, from start to finish.
    Nor need one be an “expert”, as many aspects of what makes this a boondoggle could be predicted just with common sense, reason, and basic knowledge of the twists and turns that have landed us in this absurd, untenable predicament.

  • Twobottles January 3, 2014 (5:40 pm)

    Alex, per the first part of the WSDOT statement, as noted above:

    “On Jan. 2, the water pressure was low enough and enough soil was removed from the excavation chamber to inspect the top 15 feet of the chamber.”

  • unknown January 3, 2014 (5:51 pm)

    Refresh my memory…did we vote this tunnel in to be built?

  • John January 3, 2014 (6:31 pm)

    Virgil, do have a mirror? Look at your comment.

  • unknown January 3, 2014 (6:46 pm)

    WSB thanks for the refresh.

  • G January 3, 2014 (7:02 pm)

    I think they ran into the San Francisco 49niner’s defense.

  • West Seattle Hipster January 3, 2014 (7:19 pm)

    Time for Bertha to go into Beast Mode.

  • Lola January 3, 2014 (7:24 pm)

    Alex, why did WSDOT not remember where they had buried the pipe in the first place. I say it is Underground Seattle that is holding up Bertha. Ha.

  • dsa January 3, 2014 (7:31 pm)

    “…For the last four weeks, DOT didn’t mention the pipe during several news interviews and press conferences….”
    They failed to mention the most likely problem that was *known about* and even seen on the conveyer belt. Remember this next time you hear from them.

  • WestSeaSince76 January 3, 2014 (7:39 pm)

    Yes the USA was once a great nation and likely still could be again. Less not forget that was when what is considered “The Greatest Generation” lived hence a Great Nation. Although at a certain point all the positivity in the world seems rather daft. When you consider the Seattle city planers have done nothing to improve/solve the transportation problems for the foreseeable future. Case and small but valid point 4-way stops vs roundabouts. (look it up) Not saying things can’t be done just have not yet come to fruition.

  • Mike January 3, 2014 (7:50 pm)

    Nobody seems to fear the bus tunnel. Nobody seems to fear two massive stadiums built on landfill. People still buy mansions sliding off magnolia. But oh god, the horror of a tunnel built through bedrock, cause nobody has ever done that bellow sea level. … other than a tunnel connection between France and England

  • Seattlite January 3, 2014 (8:12 pm)

    Boston’s Big Dig debacle — need anymore be said…

  • Kevin January 3, 2014 (8:41 pm)

    @pupsarebest – You are 100% right.

  • Alphonse January 4, 2014 (12:14 am)

    I was hoping it was paranormal. Could have made for yet another awesome reality show on the Syfy channel.

  • Carmen January 4, 2014 (6:38 am)

    Well said, Mike.

  • JoB January 4, 2014 (7:55 am)

    Even though the pipe was on all diagrams, they ASSumed it had been removed because most pipes are.

    I wonder what else they ASSumed?

  • wetone January 4, 2014 (10:21 am)

    Doesn’t really matter how bad this project goes or how much in cost overruns are involved, WDOT, SDOT, government and the builders will never admit to any wrong doings along with not worrying about extra cost as they just pass it on to the tax payers. Until the people involved in these types of projects start being held accountable (fired or fined ) expect a lot more issues and big cost to us. They have a proven track record here in Seattle area, 520 project, Bright Water Treatment Plant, Downtown Waterfront Project which has increased 50mil and not even started yet, but after they had us vote on it with a said cost (Humm). In Seattle just add 35% of projects original cost and you will have a more realistic actual cost. Should be interesting when they start shaking the ground with the waterfront rebuild, should be a good test for the tunnel. I’m hearing of a lot of funny things going on downtown now with some basements and underground vaults that are being kept on the D/L. Thanks Gov. Christine Gregoire, maybe we should name the tunnel after her so we can be reminded every time we pay a toll to drive on it along with how you pushed so hard for it :)

  • dsa January 4, 2014 (10:25 am)

    Where does it ever say the tunnel goes through bedrock? Currently they say the bottom of Bertha is in glacial till which would be a mix rocks, sand and silt or clay. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Till

  • dsa January 4, 2014 (11:28 am)

    Mike, where did WSDOT ever claim the tunnel would be going through bedrock? Currently they say the bottom of Bertha is sitting in glacial till. Glacial till is rocks, sand, and silt. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Till

  • wscommuter January 5, 2014 (12:24 pm)

    wetone … at least get your facts right (the current overage for the seawall replacement is $30M; not $50M). You seem to be blaming all levels of government, for all sorts of things without much connection to reality. 520 is a state project and yes, WSDOT screwed up the pontoon design and is eating that huge error. Brightwater was a King County project, and the contractor screwed that up – was sued and lost – and had a $125M+ judgment entered against it to the County’s benefit. The seawall/waterfront re-development is a city of Seattle project. We have yet to see how that will shake out. You conveniently ignore all the public works projects that do get done on time, and on budget (see south segment of SR 99 as a good example), because those don’t make news.

    Blame for hitting the pipe will get sorted out and yes, inevitably, there will most likely be litigation about it. We’ll find out if WSDOT bears this responsibility, or the contractor Tutor/Perini. Seattle (the city) has no dog in this fight, for those misguided commentators above who suggest otherwise.

  • dsa January 5, 2014 (12:41 pm)

    wscommuter, isn’t Seattle on the hook for tunnel cost overruns after a certain plateau is reached?

  • Hmm January 5, 2014 (8:57 pm)

    Iirc central link looks like 100m under budget and may open 6 months early.

  • wetone January 6, 2014 (11:20 am)

    wscommuter…. Your right I do group all levels of our government together when it comes to doing the job their hired or elected to do. People that work in government should be held responsible/ accountable with all the same consequences as one in the private sector. It works much different as you know when you work for the state or city. If you screw up rarely if ever does one get fired, you get moved around or early retirement offer. 520 is a big problem and will continue being a high maintenance $$$$ issue until pontoons are replaced with a proper built units. I wouldn’t accept a house foundation with the same issues as the pontoons if I was paying for it.
    Brightwater project yes there is a $125M judgment in the county’s favor but that’s it. Most likely be in the courts a few more times before any settlement if ever collected.
    “Voters approved a $290 million, 30-year bond measure to rebuild the seawall” I was wrong it’s 60 million over what we where told when we voted on it a year ago….
    Tunnel… funny how people involved knew what the problem was weeks ago but needed time to get stories straight before releasing little info on faults, It don’t take a rocket scientist to see many lawsuits and huge cost overruns on this project and we will end up paying one way or another.
    Rebuilt W/S freeway connecting us to I-5 on budget/time ? how long will it last, another one I wouldn’t have accepted for my driveway with the patch work it has……
    As far ignoring projects that are on time under/ on budget and done right what should be said ? just means the people involved did what they are getting paid to do.

  • WestSeaSince76 January 6, 2014 (1:03 pm)

    What should have been built but was deemed to inexpensive by the powers that be.


  • bbuddy January 6, 2014 (5:05 pm)

    An SR 99 tunnel, on schedule and at budget, is just a pipe-dream. Oh yes I did ;)

Sorry, comment time is over.