Bertha Finally Breaks Through in South Lake Union

Bertha has broken into daylight.

The giant tunnel machine chewed through the side of the disassembly vault at South Lake Union about 11:25 a.m. Tuesday, after an overnight stoppage at the concrete head wall.

Bertha arrived at the tunnel’s north portal 29 months late and four years after launching in Sodo to dig the highway tube that will replace the earthquake-damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct.

The 57-foot, 4-inch wide rotating cutter, moving north on a slight upward slope, gradually pushed concrete chunks forward as it nosed through the lower part of the concrete wall.

Bertha breaks through

Despite sprinklers raining water into in the vault, thick dust filled the area and drove media and officials witnessing the event into an enclosed area.

On Monday, Joe Hedges, project administrator for the Washington State Department of Transportation, couldn’t stop smiling as he complimented the contractors, WSDOT’s oversight team, and said Washington residents should be proud the long dig was accomplished.

“To remind everybody what’s been done in the last 11 months, (they’ve) tunneled over 1.5 miles, with just amazing results, underneath the heart of the city, tunneling a five-story tunnel,” Hedges said.

Though the state and Seattle Tunnel Partners are fighting in court over a half-billion dollars in repair and delay costs, STP has also created goodwill by cruising at 40 or even 50 feet a day since passing beneath the old Alaskan Way Viaduct last April 29.

Hedges noted that much work is left to be done before the tunnel opens to traffic in early 2019.

“We’re not at the fourth quarter, we’re only at about halftime,” he said.

Crews must complete the underground double-decker highway, with two lanes going north and two going south.

There was no public access to the site, just west of Aurora Avenue. WSDOT has installed an online vault cam and is tweeting under the hashtag #Berthabreakthrough.

STP manager Chris Dixon and state officials kept saying there won’t be much spectacle. Public interest has grown anyway. Banners of Tutor-Perini and Dragados USA, the major tunneling partners, have been hung over the wall for infrastructure sponsors worldwide to notice.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Mayor Ed Murray, along with other elected officials and WSDOT leaders, were on hand for the breakthrough.

The governor acknowledges his tunnel frustrations from the 29-month delay. During a long repair stoppage in 2015, he told KIRO radio host Dori Monson that a homeowner in similar straits would whip a late contractor “like a cheap mule.”

But Inslee said last week the technology is equally memorable, and he looks forward to watching the breakthrough.

He recalled a visit early in the project, feeling like he was in a Star Wars film.

“When you stand in the tunnel, it’s five to six stories tall. It’s mind-boggling. When you go into the control room, you feel like you’re in the Millennium Falcon control room.”

Inslee also warned the state has far to go. “We’re still in a race against the next earthquake, to take the viaduct down,” he said.

Murray sponsored the 2009 tunnel legislation when he was a state senator, shortly after Gov. Chris Gregoire chose to build a single-bore, deep highway to replace the earthquake-damaged viaduct.

As mayor, Murray said, he’s had little influence over the tunnel job because it’s not only a state contract but a design-build contract in which STP does final engineering and takes on the financial risks.

He admits there were times he wasn’t sure Bertha would make it.

“Because of the way the design-build contract works, we, the city didn’t have insight into what the issue was,” Murray said. “For a while there it was unclear what was going to happen.”

He said the waterfront revival, after the viaduct is gone, “is going to capture the imagination of the city.”

Responsibility for cost overruns may take years to be settled.

Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, last week sought to revive the issue with a bill that would withhold state revenue sharing for transportation, liquor and marijuana-related health programs, and municipal courts unless Seattle pays any future cost overruns.

The 2009 legislation said excess state costs would be borne by property owners who benefit, and “a promise is a promise,” Orcutt argues.

Murray said of that concept: “I really don’t think, if you’re a Republican legislator or a Democratic legislator, you want your local city or county to pay for state roads. I think that would be an unbelievable way to go.”

Syndicated from The Seattle Times

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