By Mike Lindblom, updated July 21, 2016
OLYMPIA — Tunnel-machine Bertha’s two-year breakdown will further delay the Highway 99 tunnel’s grand opening until 2019 and saddle Washington state with an estimated $223 million in cost overruns, lawmakers were told Thursday.
The overruns are driven largely by the need for the state to keep its staff and engineering consultants on the project longer than expected, as well as by rising land, labor and materials costs for final road connections after the tunnel is finished.
Taxpayer costs could go higher still. The state’s figure assumes the prime contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP), fails to win court battles against the state. STP’s claims exceed $200 million.
For now, Roger Millar, acting transportation secretary, told the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee he will ask for $60 million in the next two-year transportation budget, to keep enough cash flowing.
A 2019 opening would mark a full decade since former Gov. Chris Gregoire chose the deep-bore tunnel option and lawmakers approved the tunnel bill sponsored by then-Sen. Ed Murray, now Seattle mayor. Gregoire dismissed critics such as then-Mayor Mike McGinn, who warned that a clause in the bill put Seattle taxpayers at particular risk for paying for overruns.
Nothing about that was mentioned Thursday.
The extra costs almost certainly would be paid by the state’s drivers in gas taxes, more transportation-fund debt, or by tolls and fees.
In separate discussion this week, the state toll division said it would study a peak toll of up to $2.50 each direction — higher than a past committee’s suggestion of $1.25 each way.
Millar said he doesn’t know yet where $223 million would come from, adding that state leaders have time to prepare and don’t need to make decisions in a panic.
That amounts to a 7.1 percent overrun in the state’s total budget to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
State losses aren’t a completely new revelation. Last fall, WSDOT disclosed that it expected to lose $78 million to delays, according to a letter in an insurance lawsuit. If the state were to recover insurance money, that could reduce Millar’s new, higher $223 million estimate.
The 1.7-mile, four-lane tunnel was originally supposed to open to drivers by the end of 2015, to replace the old and seismically vulnerable viaduct.
The $3.137billion cost included the tunnel, connecting ramps, a port-truck overpass, rebuilt Alaskan Way surface street, and viaduct demolition. On Thursday, Millar issued a higher figure: $3.374 billion. (This includes a new $14 million expected from Seattle, to compensate for utility replacements.)
State and contractor officials had refused to discuss cost and schedule figures for several weeks — saving the bombshell news for the Washington State Department of Transportation’s bosses in the Legislature.
Millar said the numbers were prepared for an annual report due this month to the Federal Highway Administration, which supplied one-fourth of viaduct replacement money.
Lawmakers mostly seemed to take the news in stride.
King, R-Yakima, compared the pending 7 percent overrun with a study showing that megaprojects exceed their budgets by an average 28 percent. “It could have been a lot worse,” he said.
“I appreciate the fact that we are talking about $200 million, and not the ‘$2 billion’ I hear on the airwaves regularly,” added House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island. “It is not a shock that if we have a three-year delay we have some costs, and putting it out there, for the public to know that we are being very transparent about it, is great.”
Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, said the increase is still very hard for taxpayers to accept, because they were told in 2009 there wouldn’t be overruns. “How are you ever going to earn the trust of the taxpayers …?”
Orcutt later said he blames the contractors — not WSDOT — for either ordering a flawed machine, or operating it incorrectly.
As for the tunnel-boring cost, the state last year passed $1 billion in total payments toward the $1.35 billion STP contract. Chris Dixon, project manager for STP, last week would say only that “cash flow’s definitely a concern, but it’s not going to stop us from finishing.”
Delay grows longerBertha has finally been digging consistently this summer, at a pace of close to 40 feet a day since April 29. It restarted Monday after a three-week maintenance stop to inspect and replace some cutting teeth.
Dixon said Thursday it would emerge at South Lake Union next summer — slipping further beyond the hope for December that his boss, Tutor-Perini Corp. CEO Ron Tutor, expressed to shareholders this spring.
The overall three-year delay includes more than two years to reach and repair the buried machine near Pioneer Square. In addition, contractors added what state officials called a more conservative pace for the remaining two-thirds of the dig from Sodo to South Lake Union, including two more maintenance stops.
Linea Laird, chief engineer for WSDOT, said the state and contractors are cooperating, and believe it’s smarter to keep working steadily on the project, rather than have a funding impasse that drives up costs in the long run for everybody.
In its claims, STP blamed a steel pipe, left over from state groundwater testing, for the damage to Bertha, which led to grit penetrating into the rotary bearing assembly. The state replies it’s far-fetched to argue an 8-inch-diameter pipe could ruin a massive machine.
King said the 57-foot-wide tunnel could someday qualify as “the eighth wonder of the world.”
Its final costs remain an open question