Highway 99 tunnel machine is digging again, says WSDOT

ORIGINAL REPORT, 12:47 PM TUESDAY: Just in from WSDOT – it’s “conditionally lifted” the suspension order for its Highway 99 tunnel contractor, and the tunneling machine is digging again. Here’s the announcement:

Seattle Tunnel Partners has received conditional permission to resume tunneling operations on the SR 99 Tunnel Project. STP resumed mining today after WSDOT conditionally lifted the “suspension for cause” that halted mining and barging-related activities last month following two safety incidents.

As part of the conditions for lifting the suspension for cause, STP will be permitted to tunnel forward and install approximately 25 concrete tunnel rings. During this time, they must demonstrate that they have implemented a number of changes to ensure they can safely continue mining. These changes include:

Updated tunnel work and quality plans, including calculations of the amount of soil removed during excavation of each tunnel ring.
Realignment of key personnel within their quality assurance program.
New quality assurance protocols.
New personnel at key positions within the tunneling operation.
Restructured daily tunneling meetings that include additional participants and protocols.

WSDOT made the decision to conditionally lift the suspension for cause after its team of tunneling experts evaluated documentation submitted by STP over the past several weeks. While mining can resume, barging activities are still restricted pending submittal of additional documentation.

STP will remove excavated soil by truck as they continue addressing the barging issue. Repairs to the pier that was damaged during the Jan. 12 barging incident were completed earlier this month.

Work was suspended for cause on Jan. 14 per section 14.2 of the contract, which says the state can suspend work without liability to WSDOT under a number of conditions, including the contractor’s failure to “correct conditions unsafe for the project personnel or general public.”

The suspension for cause only addressed tunneling operations involving the tunneling machine and the loading of barges at the site. It did not apply to the other ongoing work under the design-build contract with STP or any other contracts being managed by the viaduct program.

After the suspension for cause was put in place, WSDOT notified STP that they would need to confirm the following things before mining could resume:

-The tunneling machine is operating as intended and meets the design-build contract’s technical requirements.
-All necessary training for staff on the tunneling machine is complete.
-The tunneling work plan is updated to address the over-excavation that led to the sinkhole.
-Processes are in place to ensure STP’s tunneling work plan is followed.
-STP updates its quality program to ensure key quality program managers are involved in all tunneling activities.

Next steps

The tunneling machine is currently located west of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, near South Washington Street. The conditional lift will remain in place for approximately 160 feet of tunneling. During this period – which is considered part of STP’s initial testing phase – STP will be operating with additional communication with WSDOT and its tunneling experts. If STP demonstrates that their revised mining procedures are effective, crews will continue mining an additional 100 feet north to a planned maintenance stop. Once there, crews could spend several weeks performing final maintenance before the machine tunnels beneath the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

WSDOT will fully close SR 99 through downtown for approximately two weeks while the machine passes beneath the viaduct. The closure date will depend on the tunneling machine’s progress. Check www.99closure.org as the closure approaches for additional details.

Statement from Gov. Jay Inslee

“WSDOT, in consultation with its team of tunnel experts, lifted the suspension of tunneling for cause and said that conditional tunneling should resume for 25 more tunnel rings. I concur with their decision, and WSDOT has notified the contractor,” said Inslee.

“The contractor has a plan for modifying tunnel operations to ensure positive ground control. It has also made changes to key personnel, and it has put in place protocols for quality control and assurance. The contractor now has an opportunity to show progress during this test period, prior to tunneling under the viaduct and underneath Seattle,” he said.

Statement from Acting Transportation Secretary Roger Millar:

“Seattle Tunnel Partners has addressed the issues that led to the suspension for cause. This conditional lift of the suspension for cause will give STP an opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of their updated mining procedures,” said Millar.

“Above all else, this project has always been about safety. We must continue our work to replace the viaduct, but we have an obligation to ensure that work proceeds safely. We will continue to work with STP while taking whatever steps are necessary to protect the interests of the public moving forward,” he said.

ADDED WEDNESDAY MORNING: You’re invited to get an update on the project from WSDOT, including discussion of the Alaskan Way Viaduct shutdown planned when the machine goes beneath it – be at the West Seattle Transportation Coalition meeting at 6:30 pm Thursday (February 25th) at Neighborhood House’s High Point Center (6400 Sylvan Way).

15 Replies to "Highway 99 tunnel machine is digging again, says WSDOT"

  • Chuck February 23, 2016 (1:41 pm)

    And next full stop in 3…2…1… 

    I found the use of the term, “mining procedures” painfully laughable. The only thing being “mined” here are the taxpayers.

  • Mike February 23, 2016 (2:00 pm)

    Remember when 520 replacement started….long long long ago, all the issues they had, sinking pontoons (each one they messed up the state paid a fee for…genius)  The cost for the short 520 bridge  is over $4.5B  http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Projects/SR520Bridge/Budget.htm  Yet all you hear are people condemning this tunnel, which will outlast the new 520 bridge.  Glad to hear Bertha is running again.  Can’t wait to see our waterfront thrive without that horrendous viaduct that’s 20 years past due to be demolished. 

    • Dale February 23, 2016 (4:16 pm)

      Good call. The soils for this first part sections are very loose, and I believe the operators went a tad too fast causing the sinkhole. The project will be completed. Besides a bad bearing with Bertha and the issue with the pier soil offloading (neither of which were the fault of STP) there really hasn’t hasn’t been big troubles. Not the minor settling caused by de-watering. I still am confused about why the haters feel the replacement of a 100 year old water line which may be be subject to breakage is STP’s problem. Seriously, 100 years old. Most homes plumbing would have been switched out three times by then. 

      • chemist February 23, 2016 (4:59 pm)

        Investigation will be hashed out in court, but thus far it sounds like the bearings started out OK but the design of the cutter head might have had too much flexing causing the noises/misalignment in Japan and I can imagine similar issues would rub away the rubber bearing seals and open up gaps to let dirt in.

  • Mark schletty February 23, 2016 (4:01 pm)

    Too bad. Bertha should get a mercy killing. Mercy for Seattle citizens, that is. The day the viaduct comes down is the day Seattle becomes the most traffic congested city in the nation.

    • JC February 24, 2016 (9:19 am)

      I so agree!!

  • burglarbustingdad February 23, 2016 (4:54 pm)

    I look forward to the day when my family and I enjoy the dramatic public waterfront that this project has created.

  • heather February 23, 2016 (7:37 pm)

    Ditto. Waiting for the viaduct removal and an enlivening of the waterfront.

  • AlkiRich February 23, 2016 (10:05 pm)

    For those whining about the ugly Viaduct and panting for the day it’s gone, please identify yourselves in your gleeful fantasy comments  as to whether you use it now or not!  For current users whose lives its removal will massively degrade, listening  to the constant bleating about the future aesthetic improvement of our waterfront when you have no “skin in the game” is amazingly insensitive superficiality. Do you actually think the original builders of the Viaduct would have put it there if there was any other better alternative location??  And to think the best alternative even now is an as yet tragically behind schedule and massively over budget tunnel whose structural integrity will always be an even greater concern than the viaduct’s, and which will only carry two lanes instead of the current three in each direction, and for which a punitively unaffordable toll will be charged! And where would you rather be when that “big one” hits? in the untested tunnel 50 ft below the water line, or above ground on a structure that has survived many previous seismic events without fatality? 

  • Villagegreen February 23, 2016 (10:27 pm)

    Yes, I currently use it frequently. Yes, I’ll gladly pay a small toll to get where I’m going. Yes, I’d rather be in a structurally safe tunnel than a piece of shite abomination of aesthetics and safety built in the 50’s when the big one hits.

  • TheKing February 24, 2016 (5:27 am)

    We have local politicians who grandstand on economic inequality as this tunnel was funded by low to middle income taxdollars, increasing waterfront property values to make the rich even richer. I am not as optimistic about this being a gorgeous place to have a family picnic as others, more like Jurassic park

  • au February 24, 2016 (10:09 am)

    i’ve read almost every safety report put out by wsdot from the time of the nisqually earthquake and the viaduct was never deemed unsafe. but for the sake of argument i will go along with this tunnel being more structurally sound in the event of an earthquake. How about fire? Sometimes cars catch on fire, would you want to be in a tunnel with a car up ahead (or behind) catching on fire? Do you want to trust your life to an elaborate fire suppression system, unlike normal, regular roads (and viaducts) that require no complicated system (nor excessive amounts of electricity) to function safely. Also five standard safety deviations were granted for the design of the tunnel. shoulder width, slope, entrance height, on ramp placement, i can’t recall the other. does that make the tunnel more safe? should safety rules get exemptions so we can have a ‘park’ like waterfront?

    as for aesthetics, you would rather look at weirdly lit grimy walls of a tunnel than the gorgeous view one is afforded now? can one not imagine a vibrant waterfront with an overhead viaduct (or beautiful suspension bridge? a majority of the traffic planned for the waterfront could have been elevated, making for a much more enjoyable pedestrian experience that the one currently planned.

    but no, seattle has tunnel vision, too bad, too bad….

  • Rick February 24, 2016 (11:20 am)

    AU-views are only for those can afford them.

  • K. Davis February 24, 2016 (11:24 am)

    @alkirich … your post is remarkably detached from reality.  And yes – I’m a current daily user of the viaduct who will miss the brief elevated ride (yes, its lovely) when the tunnel replaces it, but I also understand the – wisdom – of why the tunnel is, in fact, the best solution for our region.  The reasons why are pretty simple (and have been aired here and elsewhere ad infinitum for years).  The viaduct is a seismically vulnerable structure that will (not “may” – will ) come down in a decent sized earthquake, and in particular, will fail when the Seattle Fault inevitably does move.  “Fixing” it or replacing it with another viaduct (and the three-year closure of SR 99 to do that) are both unacceptable seismic risks.  The surface-only option was DOA – just stupid, from a transportation perspective. 


    Your wildly inaccurate statement about the “reduction in lanes from three to two” is the red herring thrown up by so many people.  The current viaduct reduces to two (2 – count them – 2) lanes in the Battery St. tunnel.  We do NOT lose lane capacity on the north-south through-put at all; instead, we get better lanes (wider, less restricted that the current Battery St. tunnel).  I suspect your real point in making this fundamentally inaccurate statement is about the loss of access at Seneca and Western.  Which is true – those access points go away.  Instead, if you’re going downtown, you won’t even use the tunnel (or pay the toll); you’ll take the new re-graded and widened Alaskan Way into downtown from SR 99.  You might want to wait and see whether your downtown access is worse … or better … than currently available, before you pass judgment. 


    Last … talk to a competent geotechnical engineer and ask where you’d rather be in an earthquake – the new tunnel or the viaduct.  He or she will tell you the cylindrical tunnel will withstand a seismic event far better. 

  • ClayJustSayin February 24, 2016 (11:27 am)

    I used to commute the viaduct each work day, and I appreciated the view every time.  It was (is) the commoners time to catch a quick look at a better life, and is sort of an attitude adjustment to see Elliot Bay no matter the weather.

    You can’t see the bay very well from anywhere at ground level unless you are on a pier.  Not from the street to any significant degree.  The elevated road is the solution to that.  It is also a pretty good solution on a bright sunny day on street level if you need shade for any reason.  Say goodby to that too.

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