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Originally published February 15, 2014 at 6:00 PM | Page modified February 16, 2014 at 3:17 PM

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Bertha is stuck and so are we

There is no backup plan to drilling the downtown Seattle tunnel. So we’re going to have to tough this one out.


Seattle Times staff columnist

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Poor Bertha. Each day more people just give up on her.

Bertha is our infamously idled tunneling drill. At first they said she was stuck. But it turns out she’s broken.

And the people of the city are turning on her.

“Bury Bertha and start over,” reads one of dozens of emails from readers I’ve gotten in the past month about the troubles plaguing the viaduct-replacement project.

“I wish someone at the DOT was wise and brave enough to stop the madness before Bertha gets irretrievably stuck under the city,” reads another.

There’s even a Twitter feed now called Stuck Bertha. It mocks the project from the drill’s point of view (“I guess I’m losing my bearings ... literally.”) It suggests we should call the whole thing off (“I have just over 1000 feet Class A office space in the hip, innovative Pioneer Square neighborhood. No windows.”)

It took us a dozen years to settle on a tunnel, and we’re apparently ready to give up already. So what should we do instead?

“Turn Bertha into an underground skatepark — not a half pipe but full pipe! — and then patch up the viaduct,” wrote another reader. “Billions saved.”

Wrote another: “Remember when you were pushing a bridge on the Sound? Is it too late to revisit that?”

I remember — though barely, because that was back in 2004. What nobody seems to want to recall about the bridge is that the state did an analysis of it and estimated it would cost north of $5 billion (because Elliott Bay is super-deep), as well as wreak havoc for the big ships coming into the Port. But other than that it would have been splendid.

“Why aren’t you jumping up and down about the incompetence of government?” reads another typical email. “Why do we never hear about private projects having massive cost overruns or critical design flaws?”

Ever hear of a private-sector company named Boeing? The Dreamliner was projected to take $5 billion to develop, and instead it cost triple that —$15 billion. Government has a lot of work to do to achieve those levels of inefficiency.

Look, all of the problems with Bertha are serious business and it’s not a good sign the state has been less than forthcoming about what plagues the world’s largest drill. That said, big construction projects do have problems. Are we made of such flimsy stuff in 2014 Seattle that we now think it’s impossible to dig a tunnel, something humanity has been doing successfully for centuries?

There’s already a mile-long, 30-foot diameter tunnel under downtown Seattle, the Burlington Northern train tunnel. It was dug 110 years ago. By 350 guys with shovels.

TunnelTalk magazine charts all the big tunnels around the world and how these projects frequently are in delay. Including for the same problems Bertha has and worse (in some they have had to dig up a broken drill entirely and replace it with a new one). Inevitably, the tunnels get dug.

The big question now is an unknowable one: cost overruns. It’s going over budget, but how much? The important oversight now is to vet the tunnel contracts to see how much the public may be exposed.

But there is no plan B. There never has been, really. Plan A, imperfect as it is, was arrived at only after a dozen years of civic water torture. Nobody much liked this tunnel, but nobody came up with anything the public thought was better. That includes the tunnel’s critics.

So at this low point it doesn’t matter if the drill is delayed a year or is a lemon that has to be replaced entirely. We’re building this tunnel.

That’s the irony of all the “Bertha’s stuck” talk. She’s not really who’s stuck.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com



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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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