EDITORIAL: No bones about it

Taxpayers free from financial troubles of S.R. 99 job

March 11, 2014

All hope will be lost when a paleontologist steps in.

However, you might as well classify it as a fossil now, an $80 million one frozen in time and buried deep beneath the Seattle surface for the past 60 days or so. I’m talking about the one they call Big Bertha, the tunnel-boring machine the size of a Brontosaurus that has not had a pulse since Jan. 29 when the operation was shut down due to damage to the seals that lubricate the $5 million main bearing. No, a prehistoric bone geek would not know what to do with it, other than exhume it. At press time, I’m not sure anyone could one-up him in the solution department, but I’m sure after further digging the answer will be produced. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) was quick to put a timetable on the fix, saying in a statement it could take months before Big Bertha makes another sound.

Seattle Tunnel Partners, the prime contractor of the S.R. 99 tunnel, said in February it was looking over four or five options for a front-end inspection, which would require crews carving a hole up to 115 ft deep to reach and repair the 630-ton cutter head. Due to the soft soil, walls or piles would be needed to keep the pit safe from a cave-in or groundwater leakage.

The manufacturer of the tunnel-boring phenomenon, Hitachi Zosen, was expected at the site for a closer look.

Obviously when you are talking about a project of this magnitude the pieces are going to be mammoth, but before anything got into the ground there was one person who played a huge part in opposing a route running underneath the Emerald City. Former Mayor Michael McGinn led a boisterous crusade to stop the burrowing, and somewhere he is in his bunker, pulling on his evil moustache (assuming there is one) and letting out a villain-pitched laugh. However, McGinn’s own city council got it right here. Lawmakers put together legislation with the following language: “The state shall provide necessary funding for all project costs as referenced in this agreement without reimbursement from the city of Seattle.” Added to the document was this: “By entering into this agreement, the city is not waiving its position that the city and/or its citizens and property owners cannot be held responsible for any or all cost overruns related to the portions of the project for which the state is responsible.” McGinn vetoed the measure, but his comrades overturned it by an 8-1 margin.  

Big Bertha is not a special breed here. Back in the early 1990s, bearing-seal troubles required workers to remove a cutter head from a tunnel-boring machine carving the Sarnia rail tunnel between St. Clair, Ontario, and Port Huron, Mich., and it was the insurers which ended up paying $29.5 million. I’m not sure who is going to lose money off the S.R. 99 troubles, but it will not be the taxpayers unless there is a loophole in the language.

The Sarnia tunnel did open, and the S.R. 99 project will eventually let the first group of cars through, and I am certain it will be a marvelous accomplishment. If anything, this project magnifies the complexity of this type of work. However, no matter the challenge it is the owner, contractor and/or manufacturer of the tunnel-boring machine who need to be bigger than what’s in front of them and accept full responsibility—not the motoring public. After all, we’re not living in the Stone Age. R&B

Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson
Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.

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