If Bertha gets snagged, don’t send bill to the state

The News TribuneDecember 30, 2013 

An unknown object has blocked progress of the machine digging a tunnel to replace Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct (in background).

TED S. WARREN/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

If Bertha can’t get find its mojo under Sodo by the time the Legislature convenes, lawmakers from Seattle will bear close watching.

They’ve never liked the 2009 deal designed to keep the financial risks of their waterfront tunnel inside the 206 area code. If overruns become a serious possibility, bet on an attempt to unravel that law.

Replacing the tottering Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel — as Seattle leaders demanded — was an inherently risky and expensive plan. Mining engineers have a corollary to Murphy’s Law: “Murphy lives underground.”

The tunneling began July 30, and it has proceeded in fits and starts since then. One bad omen was a minuscule labor dispute that delayed the undertaking by a baffling month, no thanks to weak political leaders and management.

The new subterranean route for state Route 99 is being bored by a gargantuan machine nearly 60 feet in diameter. Bertha — basically an immense rotary drill — is armed with steel cutting disks that chew up boulders and concrete and spit them out through an augur hole.

But Bertha ran headlong into Murphy three weeks ago. After grinding its way 1,000 feet north from its Sodo launch pit, the drill hit something that stopped it dead. Nobody knows what it is yet. The big drilling company doing the job has dealt with obstacles before and presumably will figure out how to deal with this one.

The question is, when? And, at what cost? And, what other mysterious booby traps may lie in Bertha’s path beneath downtown Seattle?

We hope for the best. But the worst could mean overruns to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Under the 2009 law, such overruns must be borne by property owners whose real estate will turn gold once the old viaduct is torn down and downtown Seattle is opened to the waterfront.

Seattle had less expensive options, including a rebuild of the viaduct. Its leaders pushed for the tunnel precisely because the project promised to do so much for the city, including downtown interests.

The 2009 Legislature made a deal: The state would pay $2.8 billion toward the tunnel, but any overruns would come out of the bonanza in property values resulting from the project.

Seattle leaders have been grumbling about that provision ever since.

Some of them say it’s legally unenforceable. The issue will be moot if the project proceeds on budget. But if not, the Legislature has made its intent clear — and lawmakers should make certain it does get enforced.

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