Seattle’s newest tourist attraction–which can’t be seen

Above-ground site of stuck below-ground tunneling machine along the Seattle waterfront

Above-ground site of the stuck-below-ground tunneling machine along the Seattle waterfront

See update at end of post

In a few months, after the rains end, clouds part and sustained sun finally re-appears, the summer tourism season in Seattle will start percolating. Millions of folks from around the world will become New To Seattle to savor exquisite scenery, food, culture and, maybe, pot (although, thanks to bureaucracy and red tape, none of the legal marijuana stores that Washington State voters authorized in November 2012 has opened yet).

This summer’s collection of tourist attractions will have a temporary addition. Quite an unusual one, too, since it can’t actually be seen.

The world’s largest tunnel boring machine. Stuck dead 60 feet beneath the ground along the waterfront in downtown Seattle. With no reverse gear. Going nowhere before September at the earliest.

The picture here, which I took, is about a clear a view as you’re going to get now unless you’re a mole. It looks like a construction site–which, technically, it is. (That’s Seattle’s 175-foot-high Great Wheel amusement ride in the background.) The location, off Alaskan Way between S. Jackson and S. Main Streets, is but a few blocks from the popular, bar-festooned Pioneer Square area, and the popular, fish-throwing Pike Place Market. However, this corner of Seattle is rather grim and grimy, with homeless folks sleeping under tarps and lots of uncollected litter. It’s not a nice area at night, or during the day, either.

Yet it’s already drawing visitors lured by the specter of a $80 million machine nearly 60 feet wide nicknamed Bertha making scant progress since December 7–appropriately enough, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, another great debacle.  Strolling recently around this street scene, I saw several sets of casually clad bag-toting pedestrians using cell-phone cameras on Alaskan Way under the Alaskan Way Viaduct aiming in the general direction of the dig. One person appeared to be orienting himself using what looked to me from a distance like a downloaded Seattle Times map showing the exact spot.

The $4 billion tunnel project, $1.4 billion of which is earmarked for the boring, is to replace the nearby Alaskan Way Viaduct, a 61-year-old elevated roadway, carrying State Highway 99 along the Elliott Bay waterfront, that engineers think could become toast in the next major earthquake. It is to be paid for with a combination of federal and state funding, and tolling. However, the fact that motorists will be able to avoid the tunnel by using city streets for free is putting considerable pressure on officials to keep down the tolls, which haven’t yet been set.

The tunnel route runs 9,270 feet, just under two miles. Bertha–officially nicknamed after a somewhat bizarre public contest for Seattle’s only woman mayor, Bertha Knight Landes–started its journey northward from near CenturyLink Field and Safeco Field on July 30. Over the next 130 days it dug forward 1,025 feet–a little under eight feet a day. State officials even set up a Twitter account in the persona of Bertha–@BerthaDigsSR99–to tweet out cheery progress reports.

But in early December Bertha ran into an insurmountable obstacle and ground to a halt.

One might think the 6,700-ton boring machine with a 57-foot-wide rotary cutter head sporting nearly 300 teeth would be capable of chewing up anything in its way. Nope.

As engineers worked for nearly a month to figure out the problem, a municipal parlor guessing game about the cause developed around Seattle. Unplotted boulders? A sunken boat? The curse of Chief Seattle, the Indian leader who the first gringos arriving from Illinois in 1851 gently but quickly drove out of town?

The obstacle proved to be an eight-inch-wide, 119-foot-long metal well casing left over from a state research project running as recently as 2010. Bertha, it turned out, couldn’t stomach steel.

The finger-pointing has been predictable and–if you’re not a local taxpayer–highly entertaining. The Washington State Department of Transportation said it had told the contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners, a private group led by Dragados of Spain and Tutor-Perini of California, about that very pipe. But Seattle Tunnel Partners assumed WSDOT had removed the pipe since its workers originally installed it.

State Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson said–only after Bertha bombed, of course–that the state had “had concerns” dating back to last summer. Now that took some chutzpah, considering that Bertha ran into her own agency’s pipe. In what may be another effort to shift blame, WSDOT later said the main problem wasn’t really that pipe but soil that somehow clogged the cutters.

There also have been dark insinuations that the machine, built in Japan by Hitachi-Zosen, was flawed from the get-go and that Seattle received damaged goods.

And in a typically fatuous comment, Gov. Jay Inslee solemnly declared at a press conference, “The contractor is going to be financially responsible to the citizens of this state for every single penny of cost overruns that that contractor could eventually be responsible for.”  Wanna bet?

Lawyer$ are drooling.

In late January, the contractor fired up Bertha again, but she overheated and was shut down after going all of four feet more. This time, faulty seals were blamed that let sand and other bad stuff into the mechanisms.

A month later, the contractor said it would take months to fix the problems–mainly with the seals–and it hoped to have Bertha moving again by September 1, an admittedly optimistic timetable.

Truth be told, the project has been star-crossed from the start. Despite three years of preparation, the tunnel machine was floated on a boat into Elliott Bay adjoining the site last April only to find there was no dock for parking. That wasted three days. A labor-union fight over whether four longshoremen or four operating engineers would load the barges to take away the excavated material shut down the project for more than a month. Then the Federal Highway Administration said the contractors breached their promises to hire women and minorities.

To me, the project makes little sense, especially since there will be no way from downtown to enter or exit the tunnel, and in traffic-clogged Seattle it will have fewer lanes than the viaduct it will replace. But Seattle voters overwhelmingly approved it over objections the main beneficiaries will be fat-cat owners of waterfront buildings becoming fatter by reaping windfalls in increased values from suddenly unobstructed views of Puget Sound.

With the slowly dawning realization that somebody is going to get stuck big-time with the likely bigger bill, local public opinion may be shifting. A satirical counter-Twitter account, @StuckBertha, has sprung up sporting some fairly sharp humor. (Recent example: “Everyone is calling for me to shut down. Its like a bad made for TV movie where you attend your own funeral”).

But for tourists, at least, there’s some good news. The latest proposed fix will involve digging a giant, 120-foot-deep pit right in front of stalled Bertha to access those damn seals. Visitors won’t be able to see the reclusive Bertha, but at least they’ll have a chance to eyeball her home. Sort of like seeing Buckingham Palace but not the Queen. Still, a photo op for that big 2014 summer vacation in Seattle.

UPDATE ON APRIL 21,2014: Seattle Tunnel Partners announced today the tunnel machine won’t resume digging until the end of March 2015, seven months later than the September 1, 2014, date previously announced. So tourists will have nearly a year to check out the city’s biggest civic embarrassment (excluding the Seattle Mariners, currently on a six-game losing streak).

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Seattle’s newest tourist attraction–which can’t be seen — 1 Comment

  1. Pingback: The tunnel sinking Seattle, and other holiday tales - New To Seattle

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