Correction January 13th: Originally this said the coffer in the photo about was not supposed to fall-over that way. It was supposed to fall over that way. Apologies for the mistake.
Our state’s transportation agency, WSDOT, is having some serious problems on two of its three “mega-projects*” in the Seattle area. I think the problems highlight a number of problems in the way we plan, price and green-light these large highway projects, and really continues a long track record of weakness in the agency itself.
First, the 520 bridge replacement project, having already eaten its through its $250 million contingency, needs $170 million dollars more added to its budget. From the Seattle Times:
Cost increases on the new Highway 520 bridge not only will drain the megaproject’s entire contingency fund, but could require money to be shifted from other road work, Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson told lawmakers Wednesday.
These costs are apparently related to cracks in the pontoons and the delays these cracks have caused. This is merely the first cost overrun of what I am completely confident will be many for the project whose completion date has already slipped from 2014 to 2016.
WSDOT’s other problem is a pipe blocking “Bertha”, the tunnel boring machine building the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement. Bertha became stuck whilst boring and apparently there are a lot of complications getting the entire pipe out because of Bertha’s size and position relative to the pipe and its location.
What makes pipe incident so frustrating is that WSDOT itself put the pipe there. And not for some other project, but for research testing the soil and groundwater conditions for this very tunnelling project. This really raises a lot of questions about WSDOT’s culture and efficacy dealing with contractors. The Seattle Times again (different article):
The 2002 well site was listed in reference materials provided to construction bidders, as part of the contract specifications.
“I don’t want people to say WSDOT didn’t know where its own pipe was, because it did,” said state spokesman Lars Erickson.
However, Chris Dixon, STP’s project director, said the builders presumed it had been removed.
Who’s reviewing these plans? Isn’t some one there to ensure the plan has taken into account all the information? Who’s there to look at the tunnel plan, check against the soil map they presumably used to plan the tunnelling and say “hm, better make sure this pipe has been removed”. No big deal? We’re only spending billions of dollars here. And why is WSDOT leaving 119-foot steel pipes in the ground anyway? By my very rough calculation, the pipe itself is $15,000 worth of scrap steel** (I’m sure WSDOT spent much more). Now we’re wasting millions getting out of the ground.
WSDOT has a poor record building large projects going back decades. Galloping Gertie famously collapsed in 1940. The Hood Canal Bridge sank in 1979. The I-90 floating bridge sank in 1990. The 520 replacement already has cracked pontoons years before it’s scheduled to open, and the Tunnel Highway is blocked by one of WSDOT’s own pipes. Unlike Sound Transit, who seems to be getting better at building train lines, WSDOT doesn’t seem to be capable of learning from its mistakes.
* The other is the 405 widening.
** You could say something about being “green” and recycling if you wanted to.