By Angie Schmitt, January 5, 2015
Seattle and the state of Washington have a window of opportunity to stop throwing good money after bad.
It’s been one year since the world’s largest tunnel boring machine,
“Bertha,” got stuck 120 feet beneath Seattle. Before it broke down, the
colossal machine had excavated just 1,000 feet of the two-mile tube
that’s supposed to house a new, $3.1 billion underground highway to
replace an aging elevated road called the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
Bertha hasn’t budged an inch in the 12 months since. Meanwhile, the bad news keeps on piling up.
Right now, the state’s contractor is busy building a second tunnel
down to the machine, so that parts can be removed, repaired, and
replaced. In order to keep the second tunnel dry, construction crews
have been draining the water table. This work has dangerously destabilized the very elevated highway the tunnel is supposed to replace, and one of the city’s historic neighborhoods — Pioneer Square — is actually sinking as well.
As David Roberts detailed in a recent Grist story,
the project could impose billions of dollars in cost overruns on the
public. Nobody is certain the machine can be fixed, or if it does get
fixed, whether the same problem won’t occur again, farther down its
path. In December, the deep-bore tunnel ran away with the voting for
Streetsblog’s “Highway Boondoggle of the Year” award.
If there’s anything positive to emerge from the current mess, it’s
that local advocates like Cary Moon, who warned against building the
tunnel in the first place, are commanding attention again. Moon recently
took to the pages of the local alt-weekly, the Stranger, to argue that in light of the tunnel project’s spectacular, slow-motion meltdown, the city should explore other options.
We reached out to her to learn more.
This is a pretty big disaster, it sounds like.
This project identified a lot of risks at the beginning of the
process, but the political commitment to it was already high enough at
that point that no one really paid that much attention, except for
several of us.
They treated us like we were gadflies instead of pointing out
honestly and clearly what was probably going to happen. It’s frustrating
because all this was known then but no one was listening.
What I keep wondering about is, potentially what are the long-term
impacts on Seattle, financially? Are people talking about that? Does
anyone have a good sense of how big and long-lasting of a problem this
is going to be?
Nobody has any good numbers or anything but I think everyone is
worried about it. I think this is how mega-projects spin out of control.
When you run into a problem and instead of stopping to consider your
options, you just keep spending whatever you need to be spending to keep
going. And [the state's contractor] Seattle Tunnel Partners would like
to see that happen. They just want to keep going and spend money and get
paid later. But I think all of us at the city, county and state level
need to stop and think about the impact of that and consider
Ignore sunk costs for a minute, you have to think about what are your
options from here forward: what can you afford and what’s the right
thing to do long-term? That’s what we need to be doing now.
Can you give me an overview of the politics of the situation? Who has their hand on the wheel in all of this?
That is such a good question. I’ll give you my opinion but it’s
complicated. So, the city’s mayor, the King County Executive and the
governor who cut this deal in 2009, none of them are in office anymore.
So the new mayor and the new King County Executive and the new governor
all inherited it. At this point, nobody’s stepping up and saying ‘I
believe in this project, I’m going to see it through to the end.’
They’re all just sort of watching, which is good because that means
they’re probably questioning what’s going on.
It would be awesome if the governor and the mayor and the county
executive got together and decided, ‘Okay, when are we gonna pull the
plug on this project? Let’s stay together on what Plan B is.’ That would
be ideal, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening.
I think the people that are driving this project right now are
unfortunately the head of WsDOT, Lynn Peterson, working with the
contractor Seattle Tunnel Partners. And the people who are questioning
it openly are people in the media, people in advocacy positions, some
city council members and nobody else is publicly questioning it.
Meanwhile the Alaskan Way Viaduct, an important corridor to downtown that the tunnel was planned to replace, is sinking.
So after [last year's] earthquake, it sunk some. And then when they
started the tunneling operation, it sunk a little more. After the
earthquake, they said it can sink six inches before we have to worry. It
basically sank five inches over the last eight years. But then in the
last two weeks after Thanksgiving, it sank another inch.
So we’re over the six-inch limit, but now they’re saying, ‘Well, it’s
more complicated than that.’
There’s this document right now that has
all these new limits about how much it can sink and whether it’s a
linear or lateral differential – all these new kind of more precise
limits on what’s allowed to happen. But they’re right on the edge of
they might have to close it for public safety.
Have they talked about what they’re going to do if that happens?
Well, for 10 years we all thought they were going to close it. But
now WsDOT’s saying, ‘Well, we don’t really want to close it so we’ll
figure out how to reinforce the structure.’ WsDOT’s really motivated to
not have to close the viaduct, so they’ll spend the money fixing it if
But that would only be a temporary fix?
Yeah. They know that they can’t make the highway last much longer,
but they could prop it up for a couple more years is what they’re
I think there’s a point where the city will say, ‘We don’t trust you anymore. We think the thing should be closed.’
Could you outline what you think the city should be doing to prepare for the worst.
I think the city has to convince the state, if they have to stop the
project, they have to do this Plan B. They have to be together on this
because some of the funding is going to have to come from the state.
How much money is left?
There’s probably some money left, let’s say it’s $100 million or $500 million or I hope not zero. I hope there’s something left.
You could do a lot of transit capital improvements and transit
service hours with that money. I think that’s the most important thing.
So they could get started on your Plan B tomorrow, basically?
They may have to add more buses, but buying more buses is faster than
building a highway. We have this not-quite [bus rapid transit] system,
they could basically add some capital improvements to get more dedicated
bus lanes and bus priority lanes in other places and basically make
that transit service a lot more reliable and fast.
The other part of the solution is we have a fantastic new vision for
the downtown waterfront when the viaduct is taken down and as part of
that plan, which is at waterfrontseattle.org,
there’s a four-lane urban street along the waterfront that’s already
designed and engineered and almost shovel ready. If the viaduct had to
be closed next week, we could tear it down pretty quickly and rebuild
that surface street according to design and engineering that’s already
done. It might take a year-plus to do that but the design work’s already
done on that.
Editor’s Note: In early studies comparing the “deep-bore
tunnel” plan to alternatives, the surface street and expanded transit
scenario Moon is describing was found to just as effectively manage traffic.