Some on the Seattle City Council feel WSDOT left them in the dark about tunnel-related settling of the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
By David Kroman, December 9, 2014
Bertha's stalled, the Viaduct's sinking and Mike O'Brien's hopping mad.
On Friday, The Seattle Times reported that
the Alaskan Way Viaduct had sunk 1.2 inches as the construction team
responsible for the Highway 99 tunnel project "struggled to prevent
risky soil settlement." The story about the viaduct sinking came as a
complete shock to Seattle City Council members who, despite receiving a
tunnel briefing from the Washington State department of Transportation
(WSDOT) only days before, had not been informed that Highway 99 and
Pioneer Square buildings had shifted. On Monday afternoon, WSDOT was
back before the City Council to explain.
The Times’ story came out a day before the one-year
anniversary of Bertha’s stoppage. The $2 billion tunnel project has been
plagued by an ongoing string of problems: broken seals behind the
cutterhead, an overheated main bearing, fears (ultimately groundless)
about endangering potentially significant archeological deposits and now
this sinking. Tunneling was supposed to be wrapping up about now.
Instead, Bertha has carved out just over 1,000 feet (or 10 percent) of
the waterfront tunnel. The project is already more than a year behind
schedule, and Bertha is still stalled, and awaiting repair.
Any evidence of a sinking viaduct would be cause for concern, but initial reports in The Seattle Times suggested that the elevated highway had sunken uniformly, which causes little structural stress. Immediately following the Times’
article, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT)
emailed out a "public update" assuring that “some settlement was
expected during tunnel construction,” and promising “no new damage to
But in a second story, publishedon Monday, Dec. 8, the Times suggested
that the viaduct settlement was not even, which would put the highway
at risk for the kind of twisting and stress that could result in
permanent damage. Despite that report WSDOT, in Monday's special meeting
with the City Council, maintained that the highway had in fact settled
uniformly, is safe for driving and will not close.
The discrepancy between the two accounts has the City Council confused, mad and worried.
WSDOT apparently registered the sinking of the viaduct in late
November. They did not report it because, according to the department’s
representatives, they wanted to be sure that they were in fact seeing
settlement and not just some malfunction in their monitoring systems.
“We saw the anomaly just before Thanksgiving,” said viaduct replacement
project manager Todd Trepanier, “but it was not confirmed [as
settlement] until Thursday [Dec. 4th].”
Councilmember Mike O’Brien, a strong tunnel opponent from the outset,
did not accept this explanation from WSDOT. “We made it abundantly
clear that transparency is going to be critical for us, for me, for the
public," said O'Brien. "When they saw that they were settling ... at the
bare minimum they should have said ‘we want to give you a heads up, we
see some data.’ If they want to analyze the data more, fine. But let us
know, as opposed to us reading about it in The Seattle Times.”
O'Brien's frustration was amplified by the fact that WSDOT had given a presentation to the council only days before the first Times
story ran. During the presentation, WSDOT representatives spoke only of
the excavation, never mentioning any potential settlement concerns. “I
don’t know what’s going through their mind that they would give a
presentation and not even talk about the settling,” said a clearly upset
WSDOT representatives apologized — but only for not sending the project update prior to the release of the first Times
article. Their explanation? A malfunction stopped their e-mail
notification from going out. WSDOT reps did not apologize for
withholding information from City Councilmembers in late November when
they first became aware of a potential settling issue, or during their
According to O’Brien, poor communication between the Council and WSDOT
is nothing new. In March O'Brien, fellow councilmembers Tom Rasmussen
and Jean Godden and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray sent a letter to WSDOT
asking for information regarding safety thresholds and contingency plans
for the tunnel project. WSDOT's response, according to O'Brien, was
unsatisfying. “I don’t feel confident that I’m getting the information
that I need,” he said.