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Seattle tunnel site accident just latest in series of problems to plague project

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SEATTLE — The SR 99 tunnel project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct has been controversial from the very beginning.

It split the region into two camps — tunnel supporters and those who wanted to see the state build a new viaduct or tear down the old one and use surface streets.

“This is a city that voted for a tunnel, a council that voted for a tunnel, a Legislature that voted for a tunnel. So I think the thing we need to do is to be sure the contractors who are responsible for this are able to build the tunnel they are responsible for,” Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said.

But the project has had more than its share of setbacks and delays.

The world's largest tunneling machine known as Bertha started digging in the summer of 2013.

She bored only about 1,000 feet before its seal system became damaged and it shut down.

A month later, the Washington State Department of Transportation announced Bertha had run into a long steel pipe left over from a project in 2002.

Workers just finished digging a 120-foot-deep pit in order to access and repair the machine that is still stuck underground.

"The city's official position is the state of Washington needs to finish their project. We hope they do. There have been some setback, obviously, but there will be hiccups in any big project like this,” Seattle City Councilman Tim Burgess said.

In December, the state said soil had settled about an inch under the viaduct as well as 30 Pioneer Square buildings but insisted the viaduct was still to drive on.

After all the setbacks, Thursday's accident had many shaking their heads and just hoping the workers made it out OK.

"That's quite a project. They're working on the tunnel but I didn't know if it was people hurt, if something had collapsed. I just wanted to come make sure it wasn't going to affect anybody else,” neighbor Sarah Beard said.

Now the hope is that this $2 billion project will soon get back on track.

"It's vital to our regional transportation network and so we're confident that the state will finish the project,” Burgess said.

Seattle Tunnel Partners, the contractor on the project, reported last year that workers completed more than 3 million work-hours without an injury that led to someone to missing work.

The tunnel is now expected to be open for traffic in August 2017, a year and a half after the original completion date.

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