State says now it ‘will take months’ to fix stalled Big Bertha

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SEATTLE — The Washington State Department of Transportation dropped a bombshell in a late Monday night press release, saying it will now “take months” to repair or replace the seals on the $80 million Bertha tunneling machine that has been stalled under the city’s streets since early December.


Bertha in the launch pit (Courtesy: WSDOT)

Bertha — the world’s largest tunneling machine that was built in Japan — has been idle for the most part since early December. It was constructed to dig the State Route 99 tunnel along Seattle’s waterfront that will replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct.  Bertha began its work July 30, 2013, but so far the  tunnel extends just over 1,000 feet — about one-tenth of its projected 1.7 mile trip.

The tunnel was scheduled to open to drivers in late 2015. But Bertha sits idle, 80 feet below Seattle.

Inspections recently revealed that the seals on the machine’s cutter head were contaminated with sand, dirt and water.

“Replacing the seals is a complicated process and STP (the contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners) is working closely with Hitachi Zosen, the tunneling machine’s manufacturer, to determine the best path forward.

“They are looking at two ways to access the seal area: through the back of the machine or by drilling an access shaft from the surface in front of the machine. Either way, this process will take months,” WSDOT said in its Monday night press release.

“They expect to make a decision by the end of the week, and once they do, we will share that information with the public,” the department said.

“STP has not yet fully determined the cause of the seal problems and to date, they have not shown any evidence that suggests the state or taxpayers will be responsible for cost overruns associated with these repairs. We have requested and expect detailed plans on how the repairs will be made and how STP can recover lost time on the tunneling project,” WSDOT said.

The tunneling project was estimated to cost $4.25 billion, with $2.8 billion coming from the state and federal governments.

“Since the machine is stopped and repairs need to be made, STP has also informed the city of Seattle that they can proceed with seawall replacement construction near the machine’s current location,” WSDOT said.

The problems with Bertha have led some critics to compare the project to that of Boston’s Big Dig project in the 1990s — which became the most expensive highway project in the U.S. and was plagued by escalating costs, scheduling overruns, leaks, design flaws and charges of poor execution.

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  • Gordgray

    hay thanks D.O.T. you should of took the advise of your lawyers to bad you have not, now that this is going to turn in to the BIG DIG you should fire the head and second in command of D.O.T and do the job you are suposto to protect the Washington state people from the likes of them!

  • Joe

    "The best tunneling machine in the world” – they said. Turns out the seals are of inferior design. This going down like Obama care.

  • My View

    This entire tunnel debacle lies entirely on the shoulders of Christine Gregoire, the most worthless Governor the State of Washington has had in my lifetime.

    • Gordgray

      So the voters have nothing to do with it? I seem to r ember we THE PEOPLE of Washington State voted it to build it, So please remind me of how she was or is responsible?

      • My View

        Better lay off the weed, the voters of "Washington State" did not vote to build this. There was a hokey "Seattle" vote, but not a "Washington State" vote. Since everyone in the "State" is paying for it, that "Seattle" vote was total BS.

  • Dave

    When will you tell us the truth. There is nothing wrong with the seals. Big Bertha has hit a buried old freight rail car. This was buried when they were filling lower areas of Seattle's waterfront. This rail car with be very difficult to remove because Big Bertha can not back up. They could have designed Big Bertha's cutting perimeter face to be hinged to fold the outer cutting edge to be smaller than the outer cement shell which now prevents Bertha's retreat. Then through a hinged door on cutting face, they could get to the front side and remove the steel debris which will continue to burden Baby Bertha's progress.

  • Dave

    The seals they are telling us are showing signs of wear with sand/grit intrusion, may infact, need attention. But I definately can tell you they are not located on the front side of the cutting head. If you admit to more steel items that Bertha has encountered, will that void the Bond and warranty?

  • رش مبيدات حشرية

    Can I just say what a cojfort to uncover a person that genuinely understands what they’re talking about online.

    You definitely know how to bring a problem to light and make it important.

    More aand more people really need to look at this andd understand this side

    of your story. I was surprised youu are not more popular

    given that you most certainly have the gift.

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