Seattle is world-class in many ways–including problems

Existing Route 520 Bridge across Lake Washington

Existing Route 520 Bridge across Lake Washington

Seattle has a world-class reputation as a place with scenic beauty, cutting-edge technology, clever businesses and smart people. Here’s some other world-class stuff. As I write this, a project to replace the world’s longest floating bridge is foundering due to bad engineering. The world’s largest tunneling machine is stuck under downtown going nowhere. Cost estimates to replace the seawall keeping world-famous Puget Sound from flooding downtown are going up. Efforts to rework a short stretch of a key city street near the word-famous houseboats are continuing into a fourth decade.

That’s $5 billion worth of world-class problems. It’s almost enough to make one Sleepless in Seattle. And not just because that 1993 movie was set on one of those houseboats.

Troubled public construction projects are hardly unique to Seattle. The cursed Big Dig project comes to mind in Boston at the other end of Interstate 90, which starts here next to the stadium where the Seattle Seahawks will play the New Orleans Saints tomorrow in a big NFL playoff game. But in Seattle there sure seems to be a lot of hurt all at once in a city that isn’t even among the country’s 20 largest.

It’s even hard to decide which debacle to describe first. They’re all so embarrassing.

I’ll start with the floating bridge that isn’t so buoyant.

The 1 1/2-mile-long Route 520 bridge crosses Lake Washington, the long skinny body of water to the east. Because the lake is so deep and its bottom so muddy that traditional pilings can’t be installed, the bridge literally floats on giant concrete pontoons. Washington State is in the process of building a parallel replacement span for the 50-year-old bridge, considered vulnerable to violent storms and earthquakes.

But here’s the problem.  Some of the new pontoons leak–meaning water gets in–which is not a good way of keeping something afloat, especially when it’s very heavy. Official reports have blamed design errors by state engineers. The pontoons are being redone–at a cost of more than $200 million–delaying the bridge for years. There have been other problems, too. Since the state can’t sue itself, and tolls can be put up only so high, taxpayers somehow are going to have to eat a lot of this. The state has crashed through its $250 million contingency fund and just asked lawmakers for another $170 million. Total cost is nearing $3 billion.

Then there’s Bertha.

That’s the name given to the $80 million giant tunnel machine that is boring a 57-foot-wide hole 8,000 feet long under downtown Seattle for a replacement to the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which skirts along the Puget Sound waterfront.  Amid much fanfare, Bertha started burrowing on July 30. On December 6, after going 1,000 feet, Bertha found itself blocked. It hasn’t moved an inch since.

Officials say the obstacle is an eight-inch-wide steel pipe left over from a 2002 monitoring project. Apparently Bertha can chew up concrete and wood, but not steel. Then the finger-pointing began. State officials said they had told the private contractors group doing the work about the pipe, but the contractors said they assumed the state had removed the pipe. There has been vague talk of lawsuits.

No one knows when the drilling will resume, or if the $1.4 billion budget will be sufficient. This is one project I don’t really understand. It was designed mainly out of fear the next earthquake would crash the aging Viaduct and also, I suppose, to open up the waterfront. But the cost, which would be only partly offset by tolls, strikes me as prohibitive for the added benefit. Still, Seattle voters strongly approved the project shortly after I became New To Seattle in 2011.

The tunneling is going on only a hundred feet or so to the east of another voter-endorsed project, to replace Seattle’s deteriorating seawall, parts of which date back 99 years. In 2012 voters overwhelming approved a $290 million bond issue. Oops! The cost keep going up as the project gets delayed. The new tab is $330 million. In another dust-’em-up, some City Council members have accused former Mayor Mike McGinn of hiding the higher tab until after Election Day (he lost). McGinn’s people deny hiding anything.

Finally, there is what is known not so affectionately in Seattle as the “Mercer Mess.” It’s the latest incarnation of efforts dating back 40 years to fix the traffic flow along Mercer Street, an east-west artery just north of downtown that connects Interstate 5 with Seattle Center, home of the Space Needle. It’s only a mile long, but the price tag for what is formally known as the Mercer Corridor Project is an eye-popping $260 million.  Much of Mercer Street goes through the hot South Lake Union commercial district where Amazon is headquartered, which should speed up the project but hasn’t. Among the things trying to be fixed is an odd, long-standing traffic pattern by which part of Mercer Street goes one-way eastbound, but no parallel one-way westbound route goes completely through nearby.

Guess someone was really asleep on that.

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Seattle is world-class in many ways–including problems — 3 Comments

  1. Pingback: Richest people in Seattle get a lot richer - New To Seattle

  2. I too am a transplant. The two things they do well is build sports stadiums and airplanes. That’s pretty much it. Cannot get the PD in line. They have public elections every two weeks but rarely is anything decided. The next step is always a lawsuit by whatever opposition loses.

    Both these projects took nearly 15 years for consensus. Finally here and blunders are an embarrassment. Especially Bertha. In addition to your comments there is the duh factor: After delays and Bertha making the national news, dontcha think the state officials would scratch their heads and say – “Gee, I wonder if that IS the pipe we neglected to remove, even though we were required to, didn’t do it anyway. We told them about it, but maybe we should double check.” Then from the other side: “They told us there is a steel pipe here somewhere, I wonder, hmmm, maybe that is the hold up.”

    But it gets better. Before Bertha schlepped into Elliot Bay and engineers were doing soundings to determine any sub-ground obstacles, dontcha think the state officials would have offered to pin point the well for them so they can do SOMETHING about it?

    Idiotic all around. Now the contractors are saying when a section of the pipe emerged they thought they had all of it. Dontcha think they would contact state officials and ask: Oh, BTW how long is that steel pipe, how far down does it go.

    And I wonder if the state officials really did notify contractors, when did they do that? Before soundings? Or after Bertha got stuck. My money is on after. Why? Because state environmental laws required them to remove it.

    I’ve been here 16 years, I have yet to figure these people out.

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