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Originally published February 27, 2014 at 9:31 PM | Page modified February 27, 2014 at 9:53 PM

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Panel sees no light at end of Highway 99 tunnel before 2016

Even if work crews go 24-7 on the Highway 99 tunnel, the project will probably miss its scheduled 2015 opening, a new report says.


Seattle Times transportation reporter

Expert Review Panel

The three-member group, formed by the Legislature and Gov. Chris Gregoire in September 2011, issued its third annual report on the Highway 99 project Thursday. Members and their professional specialties are:

* Patricia Galloway, of Cle Elum; megaprojects management, contracts and risk.

* Bob Goodfellow, of Rockville, Md.; underground construction and risk management.

* John Rose, of Seattle; project finance, budgets and bonds.

The report can be found at http://bit.ly/1gG7XAI

Source: WSDOT

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So little progress has been made on the Highway 99 tunnel that it probably won’t open as scheduled in late 2015 — even if contractors work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, an expert review panel predicts.

In a report issued Thursday, the panel also warns that the project, now delayed by a stalled tunnel-drilling machine, could be jeopardized unless “strained relations” between the state Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and builder Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP) are fixed soon.

Nonetheless, the experts say they’re confident the entire replacement for the 1953-vintage Alaskan Way Viaduct can still be done for the $3.1 billion budget — because non-tunnel portions of the job are coming along fine.

The report cites WSDOT risk analyses to warn that $100 million in contingency funds could be eaten up by costs ranging from tunneling delays, to land prices, to toll-collection systems.

However, the panel believes that based on information from the state, the $290 million set aside to demolish the old viaduct and rebuild surface Alaskan Way is more than what’s needed, and the WSDOT can save up to $70 million there.

Whether delays will hurt taxpayers is an open question.

The panel says STP, not the state, will likely wind up covering the millions in added costs, except for maybe a portion that can be blamed on a steel pipe the WSDOT left in the ground and that tunnel-boring machine Bertha hit in early December.

Contractors will take months to restart the world-record, 57.3-foot diameter drill.

It needs repairs or replacement to the main bearing system, which steadies the rotating cutter assembly.

The expert panel, appointed in 2011 by then-Gov. Chris Gregoire to study cost risks, doesn’t guess how much money it will take to fix Bertha, which has moved only 4 feet since sand was found in the lubricating grease Dec. 7.

The report acknowledges that a pending root-cause analysis may “supersede the information contained herein and could change the [panel’s] finding.”

The machine has already been retrofitted once, after its sheer weight damaged the rubberized seals during tests at the Hitachi-Zosen manufacturing yard in Osaka, Japan, in late 2012.

Pat Galloway, chairwoman of the review panel, noted Thursday that Hitachi has built thousands of tunnel drills and is capable of troubleshooting. “You do have, at least, a manufacturer with extensive expertise,” she said.

In a few days, STP and Hitachi-Zosen are expected to issue their plan to fix Bertha, by excavating a 120-foot-deep pit near South Main Street and removing the 630-ton cutter head.

The state has insisted that under the design-build contracting system, the contractors will wind up covering costs to repair or replace the breached seals, which are part of the $5 million bearing assembly.

The expert panel predicts the project won’t be done until the first half of 2016. And that could be optimistic, given what the rescue operation entails.

Galloway said in an interview that the WSDOT produced an excellent contract that should minimize taxpayer risks from delays.

When it moves

Bertha has moved forward on only 36 days since its July 30 launch. But on 15 of those days, it moved between 25 and 52 feet, leading the expert panel and project officials to speculate that time can be saved after the repairs.

And the panel says that by boosting the work schedule from 20 hours, five days a week to 24 hours, seven days a week, the team could save up to eight weeks. In addition, by starting to build the highway decks at the south portal right now, while Bertha is stopped, six more weeks could be saved.

It’s likely that STP could file claims to try to get taxpayers to cover some costs beyond the $1.44 billion contract.

STP director Chris Dixon has argued that costs associated with the pipe strike and an August dockworkers’ labor dispute should fall to the state. He argues that the steel pipe gouged the cutter blades to the point they stopped grabbing dirt.

The panel expressed alarm about the tense relationship between the state and the contractor — and urged both sides to focus on cutting costs instead of laying blame.

In January, state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson publicly declared STP to be in breach of contract, for failing to hire sufficient minority-owned small subcontractors.

The report says the contractors contend Peterson’s comments are damaging. “The companies comprising the STP joint venture believe WSDOT’s ‘breach’ action has damaged their reputations and compromised their ability to seek business elsewhere in the United States,” the report says.

The two sides pointed fingers last month about whose fault it was that the steel groundwater-research pipe was left in the ground and struck by the tunnel machine.

The report adds, “the Project has not benefited from an open exchange of technical ideas and information between WSDOT and STP.”

The state has a group of advisers with tunnel expertise, but they don’t have formal talks with STP.

Todd Trepanier, the DOT’s project administrator, said Thursday he hadn’t studied the report yet, but in general, “I don’t believe we have a poor communication relationship with the contractor.”

Gov. Jay Inslee expressed relief Thursday after being briefed on the panel’s findings.

“I think the most important thing from the report to me is it seemed to suggest we had sufficient confidence to continue to move forward with the tunneling project. I actually think that’s good news, given the nature of the challenges the project has had already,” he told reporters in Olympia.

“We need to be a vigorous and insistent customer of the contractor,” Inslee said. “They have a legal obligation to finish this tunnel on time and under budget. We should continue to hold them to that commitment.”

Staff reporter Andrew Garber contributed to this report from Olympia. Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom



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