What Bertha leaves behind

The stream of news from the deep-bore tunnel project has been uniformly bad: stuck for months for an unclear reason, the completion date has slipped to August 2017 at best ($). The rescue effort itself is causing the already brittle viaduct to sink, along with a chunk of Pioneer Square. It’s unclear, at least to me, who will end up paying the ballooning costs, but there certainly will be lots of litigation ahead.  Nothing catastrophic has happened – yet.

Back in 2009, I joined many others in thinking that the deep-bore tunnel project was a bad project at any price, and now that it is sure to take longer and more likely to cost taxpayers more than budgeted, that judgment looks better than ever. We believed Seattle could do just fine without another highway through downtown, particularly with alternative transit investments, and thought closing the viaduct would illustrate that for everyone. I continue to believe that.

In my circles, the new developments spawn some justified gloating, and renewed calls to both close the viaduct now and halt the project. Indeed, halting the project would be a fabulous decision for all the reasons linked to above. However, were I convinced that the project was critical to the city’s future, I wouldn’t let a few overruns or delays change my mind, just as I didn’t when Sound Transit ran into somewhat similar problems early in its first critical project. And much to my dismay, as it turns out we haven’t seen any of the defections that would indicate this project is really in political trouble.

As for closing the viaduct, everyone agrees that it isn’t safe in the event of an earthquake. For many people, that’s enough to shut the thing down, as even Gov. Gregoire threatened to do by 2012, and that’s an entirely reasonable viewpoint. But for many others, earthquake risk is worth avoiding whatever economic damage closing the viaduct would cause. Now that the viaduct is settling, WSDOT insists it is still as safe as it was.  WSDOT Secretary Lynn Peterson writes ($) that if it weren’t, they would simply apply stopgap techniques to shore it up. To claim that the measured settling demands closure of the viaduct implies at least one of two things: WSDOT’s engineers are incompetent, or managers are willfully ignoring technical advice for political or reputational reasons.

I have no special insight into what goes on at WSDOT, and for all I know a huge scandal revealing one or both of the above could surface tomorrow*. But functioning in a technical society requires placing at least a little trust in the judgment of trained professionals, and I think we have to give them the benefit of the doubt on this narrow matter.

* or – God forbid – a catastrophe proving their incompetence.

80 Replies to “The Tunnel is Still Terrible, but Nothing Has Changed”

  1. Transit isn’t a viaduct replacement if only because their capital isn’t the same source. Transit also doesn’t do anything for the very real freight needs.

    Someone who will need real transit is West Seattle. The post viaduct future picture of the West Seattle bridge doesn’t look good.

    1. It’s not nearly as simple as taking the DBT budget and spending it on transit. The surface/transit/I-5 plan took the gas tax money and spend it on city streets and I-5 improvements. The other funding sources would have gone to transit improvements, but overall the project budget would be smaller.

      1. Exactly. The surface/transit/I-5 plan would have been better for everyone. That is because it had surface improvements (for the port), transit, and I-5 improvements (for drivers and buses, especially those in West Seattle). Meanwhile, the tunnel will have no entrances or exits downtown or at Western. Whatever traffic fears people have about tearing down the viaduct will be realized, because the tunnel really doesn’t replace it. Think about it. If I’m in West Seattle, and want to get downtown, I have two very good choices right now. I can take I-5, or take 99. Once the viaduct gets closed, I will either take the surface streets or I-5. One plan allocated money for both, but the tunnel will provide nothing for either. West Seattle to I-5 will simply remain a huge traffic jam until I-5 improvements can be made,

      2. You are overstating the difficulty accessing downtown. To go from West Seattle to downtown you’ll take the Alaskan Way off-ramp instead of entering the tunnel portal. Yes, you’re nine or ten blocks or so south of the existing off-ramp, but only five or six from the on-ramp.

        Stand by Columbia Street in the evening. Yes, there is a steady stream of cars coming down the hill and entering the viaduct. But the on-ramp is only a single lane and it’s only being used about half the time. There are relatively few turners from First Avenue because of all the pedestrian traffic. The volume of traffic entering and exiting downtown via Seneca and Columbia is simply not enormous. The rebuilt Alaskan Way will be sufficient.

        Now the loss of the Elliott and Western pair is more serious. There is more traffic using the viaduct from them than from the “downtown” ramps and the necessary detour much longer and clumsier because of the pair of turns at Broad Street.

      3. I mentioned Western and I stand by my comments. Nine or ten blocks isn’t much, unless the traffic just isn’t moving. I really don’t know what the traffic will be like, but without money for improving the surface options, it can’t be that good. Meanwhile, there is also nothing for I-5, which is a mess now, even though the Viaduct still stands.

        The tunnel will be really nice for the handful of people who want to use it, but it won’t carry nearly as many people, nor will it do much to relieve pressure on I-5. Dollar for dollar, it will be one of the worst things we ever build (and that is assuming it gets built under budget).

    2. Lest we forget, the DBT isn’t acually aligned to do much for freight. A freight-useful alignment would have had its north portal closer to the waterfront, with a direct path to Interbay. But remember, the alignment was chosen by politicians trying to go home for the year, not by engineers. Moreover, the safety restrictions disallow a good chunk of freight from using the DBT.

      Mark my words. Freight will mostly take the new waterfront boulevard. “Freight” has been a canard all along.

      The DBT debaucle isn’t just that the engineers were never given a chance to step in and say this is too dangerious, but also that politicians didn’t think the routing through well at all.

      For West Seattle car commuters, the DBT (assuming it ever opens), will be an attractive nuisance that will induce traffic from other points south to congest Highway 99 leading to downtown. And no, we can’t set up a tolling system that excludes West Seattleites.

  2. I think it is time to give every man, woman and child a shovel so that we the citizens of Seattle can prove to the world that we are not completely inept at choosing our politicians. I think 675,000 shovelers could beat the new Aug 17, 2017 deadline by at least a month.

    1. Whoa there pardner. Why should Seattle have to carry 100% of the shoveling, when this is a designated highway of regional significance?
      At least come up with some formulas whereby the suburban infrastructure ‘freeloaders’ can participate in the excavation.
      “Many shovels make light work”

      1. …and while we’re on the subject of fairness, let me add this.
        Shovelers should be encouraged to use ORCA to speed up spoils removal, simply tapping your shovel rather than fumbling for your validation ticket. Also, many of us are ‘needs based’ so only requiring half full shovels would conform to ADA standards.

      2. i just don’t see east siders sporting shovels for a few years. Maybe they can provide lattes to every Seattlelite until project completion. Maybe not equity but it’s something.

    2. I think I remember reading that sometime in the 19th century Seattle citizens really did start shoveling right of way for the railroad they wanted to come into Seattle, not Tacoma- which all the smart money said was going to be the boss city in Washington State.

      Now everybody with a pickup truck and a trailer can rent a back-hoe or a “Bobcat”, which make work lighter than shovels do. But average person can’t afford rental on Viaduct-demolition-grade machinery.

      So might be better to wait until the structure falls down by itself- hopefully with enough warning you don’t have to help the medical examiner’s office first. Rescue dogs also get pathetically depressed repeatedly finding people it’s too late to rescue.

      But budget wise, especially considering insurance the machine rental companies would charge, it’s better if citizens just pay the taxes for the work and the transit that’ll follow.

      After preparing recall-election documents in case elected representatives won’t sign off on the project at reasonable rates.


  3. After a Metro Council meeting before 1994, I asked the man sitting next to me, one of the world’s top public works engineers, why he didn’t stand up during public comment and correct some remarks from elected politicians that amounted to saying that two and two added up to twenty-two.

    Answer: “If a politician asks an engineer about a course of action, the engineer will respond with two questions: “How much money do you have, and how much time?”

    The engineer will then tell the politician the likely outcome of the courses of action presented. “But the one thing an engineer will never tell an elected superior is what he should do!”

    On a public project that decision, and its results, are the responsibility of the voters’ elected officials. Not the engineers.

    The Governor of the State of Washington more or less swore she’d bring that viaduct down in 2012. “Watch me!” sounded a lot more emphatic than the negotiations that followed.

    Preponderance of evidence is indicating that gravity, soils and geology were already following Christine’s orders before they were issued. Lifesaving decision or natural forces with their own priorities, result will be the same:

    Sooner or later, everybody living in the Admiral District who wants to keep working Downtown will have to pay whatever is needed for transit, as will the rest of the electorate too.

    Only difference is that the coroner’s office will not have so much rubble to sift if the Viaduct comes down on Jay Inslee’s and Ed Murray’s orders-not Nature’s. I think you’re an engineer, Martin, so you’ve done your part.

    Mark Dublin

  4. What are all those rectangle things hanging on the walls?
    Maybe framed pictures of WSDOT projects that didn’t turn out so ….. (searching for the right words) …..
    ‘dead-ended’. Perhaps this could be turned into lemonade after all. Seattles answer to the Louve.

    1. If it doesn’t work out as a road it can be a really big homeless shelter. Plenty of room for all.

      1. How about the transfer station for 4 new transit bores, each 22 feet in dia. Double stack the lines and platforms for two new lines going to Ballard and out Aurora. The walk to Colman dock is a breeze and the people mover to Pioneer station a mere few blocks away.

  5. Thanks Martin. I hadn’t read the other articles you wrote before, but I think they really lay out the advantages and disadvantages of the various approaches. I’m afraid most of the city just doesn’t get it. I don’t blame them, the issues are complicated. But I think the arguments got simplified, and even now, there is great confusion. Here are just some examples of the misunderstandings:

    1) The tunnel will be just like the old viaduct, except underground. No, it won’t. It will be only two lanes, it won’t contain entrances or exits downtown at Western.
    2) A new viaduct would be just like the tunnel. No, even the smallest new viaduct would have had exits at Western.
    3) The task force that was asked to look at the viaduct recommended a tunnel. No, they recommended either a new viaduct, or the surface/transit/I-5 work.
    4) The surface/transit proposal means basically tearing it down and letting drivers suffer (a “do nothing” approach).Not true. Transit would reduce traffic, making driving on other roads easier. Second, the surface/transit approach always included improvements to I-5. This is huge. For example, West Seattle traffic is backed up not because of the viaduct work, but because I-5 is backed up. A new lane on I-5 (or other work on I-5) might not “fix” the problem, but it will help. It is highly likely that I-5 improvements would do way more to alleviate West Seattle traffic than a new tunnel for 99.

    The last issue is huge. I’m afraid there is a big conflict in this city between folks that want to spend transportation money only on public transit, and those that want to spend money only on roads. It misses the point, as far as this project is concerned. If you want to spend a few billion on roads, to serve only cars, this is still a terrible idea. The money should just be put into improving I-5 and the surface streets. That’s why the task force (which O’Brien served on, and actually got him interested in being a city council member) recommended against the tunnel. This was a task force made up of folks from various interest groups, including those that work for the port.

    I really have no idea what to do at this point. Maybe Bertha gets fixed and this gets built — a little late and a over budget. Even if that happens, it wasn’t a great value.

    The worse part about this is that we don’t seem to be learning our lesson. The best remedy after a huge mistake like this is full disclosure and much better transparency in the future. The state should make sure that everyone knows what is planned, and what are some logical alternatives. This wasn’t the case for this project, and it certainly isn’t the case for most of what the state wants to build. The governor’s budget called for a lot of money to be spent on smaller transportation projects. What exactly are these? What are the alternatives? That sort or planning assumes that we will eventually build everything, everywhere, so it really doesn’t matter. That is ridiculous, of course, given our past. We need greater transparency about these projects, because frankly, this one was the most important, the most debated project, and it was a horrible mistake.

    Speaking of transparency, I tried to read the two alternate proposals (a new viaduct and I-5/surface/transit). It looks like I need a username/password. This may be some sort of IT error, but I don’t think it should happen. We need to know as much as possible about this issue, and future issues, even if it means we have to preserve old, outdated documents. Here are the links:



    1. It may have to do with the type of contract. If the contractor is responsible for designing the contract, providing a TVM, and cost overruns, then a lot of those details are owned by the contractor and may be proprietary trade secrets. Whereas if the state had done all that, they would be public.

      1. I doubt it. These are just the preliminary documents that used to be public. My guess is they just put them in the “back room”, and thus require authentication. I can see some logic behind this. These are things that won’t be built, so why display the documents as if it is an option. That might confuse the public. But I think they should spend more time and effort in displaying previous options, just so we can learn about them.

        But more importantly, I would like to see more information about what it is they want to build in the future. What is the next thing they would build, and why? I have seen numerous examples of projects that are, in my opinion, not the next thing we should build. It is easy to say we should spend less money on roads, but if we do spend money on new roads (and it is likely we will) I want to know what these projects are, and I want to know why someone thinks that is a good idea. I’m afraid that with a lot of them, they are very much like the tunnel — a nice idea, but simply not worth the money. Even if the tunnel is built under budget, it won’t provide enough automobile mobility for the money.

  6. I think you should consider another possibility, besides incompetence or mendacity: the engineers really don’t know. There are so many factors involves, with so much uncertainty, that all we really can do is make educated guesses. We can bracket those guesses with statements of probably error, but that’s pretty hard to get across in a sound bite or executive summary: “in the event of this specific type of earthquake, with this strength, there’s a 57% +/- 45% of the whole thing falling down”, etc.

    The politicians and public demand certainty, and the engineers really aren’t in a position to provide it. Shrugging and saying “we really don’t know” will never be acceptable, so the hundreds of pages of analysis get transformed into the kind of certainty we hear.

    1. Like I said, but also:

      1. Engineers will also be first to say- especially in response to a demand for a definite answer- that none of them know everything, that best any of them can give is their best estimate- and that either of two equally competent engineers will often disagree on any point.

      2. Very much like professional soldiers- and even more, officers, engineers feel themselves sworn to avoid advocating any course of action. Can anybody think of any recent wars where the elected officials who approved invasions blamed their officers for the results of their orders?

      After a whole war-full of not just bad decisions- but deadly consequences that political expediency demanded not be made?

      Just askin’.


    2. Obviously all statements contain uncertainty, but there are engineering processes to assess the safety of all structures and conduct tests when needed. That’s as true of the Fremont Bridge and the I-5 bridge as it is the viaduct.

      1. Much as heroic statues mainly suggest that their subjects’ chief accomplishment was improving sanitary comfort for pigeons, they do raise one question:

        Why do you never see a single pigeon sitting on the statue of a process holding a sabre? Google up “I-90 Bridge Sinks”. Seriously doubt that either visibly dangerous conditions or a long list of processes maliciously sank the bridge by themselves.

        In a city that equates any human decision on public works as tyranny, every similar predictable disaster always brings demands for more process.

        But absent some actual person, especially the one who’s job is to decide how to use process as a guide to action, it’s strange that anything at all here remains either vertical or afloat.


  7. All I can say is that I am very glad the proposal to bury I-5 on the east bank of the Willamette River went nowhere. I’m pretty sure an East Bank Tunnel would have been a mess as well.

    We did eventually get a deep bore east side tunnel, but it is a sewer tunnel that is so deep I think it’s down in the bedrock somewhere.

    1. Is the same crew that got the Columbia River Crossing cancelled available to turn their talents towards getting this one buried too?
      What’s that old saying, ‘A billion saved is a billion earned’.. or something like that.

      1. The first CRC I-5 bridge design presented to the public in 2011 lasted one month of peer review before its rejection as structurally unsound. Three subsequent designs, incrementally stripped of excessive structural ornament, revealled even the simplest “double-deck” design to be likewise structurally unsound. CRC Commission leader Wsdot wouldn’t admit it and decided in budget allocations to defer rebuilding Oregon’s Marine Drive Interchange while keeping all Washington State interchange rebuilds. Of the 7 interchange rebuilds in the project, Marine Drive is MOST in need of rebuilding, especially for trucking.

        Along with ODOT’s fine new Marine Drive Interchange design of 2010, ODOT finished the alternative Concept #1 Off-island Access to Hayden Island. Wsdot flatly rejected Concept #1, instead preferring Concept ‘D’ (spagetti ramp death trap) proposed from the start 5 years prior. Wsdot leaders and department heads when challenged struck back maliciously.

        The same mendacious misanthropy is happening in Seattle. Wsdot’s elevated replacement presented to voters in 2007 was a larger AWV monstrosity. Why couldn’t Wsdot instead propose the slimmed-down 4-lane ‘single-deck’ elevated replacement of 2008 instead? Why? Wsdot jerks wanted the worst viaduct on the Seattle waterfront, purely out of spite. Wsdot’s conservative business cohorts despise Seattle liberals. SDOT director Grace Crunican (2002-2009) was FIRED from her previous position at ODOT for violations of federal ADA mandate and State code. She too exhibits callous disregard for public safety while coddling nitwit liberals to get away with committing murderous fraud. Now she’s in the process of ruining Bay Area BART because her liberal support base can’t see the forest for the trees.
        Wsdot must be investigated and its leaders face criminal charges else they’ll continue their sorry record of malfeasance and set a precident which highway robbery departments around the nation will follow, laughing all the way to the bank.

      2. Still don’t believe Wsdot would intentionally distort their studies to mislead the public? Why then in their 2008 studies did they propose 3 surface street configurations with 27-30 stoplights when they knew that as few as 10 stoplights is possible? Instead of 5 stoplights on both Aurora and Sodo, none is possible. Instead of 5-8 stoplights in Lower Belltown, none is possible. Instead of 13 stoplights on the waterfront, 10 is possible.

        Wsdot leaders and department heads rigged their studies before AND after the 2007 voter referendum. Are they reporting the whole truth about unstable soil conditions and prospects of settling along the entire length of the proposed bore tunnel? Is the structural integrity of the drill-fill sea fence extremely questionable? Will Mercer West only make the Mercer Mess messier; more accidents and worse accident severity? Instead of honest answers, expect patronizing and payoffs from Wsdot, Sdot and who knows, Metro and Sound Transit record isn’t all that impressive.

      3. WSDOT is a highway agency, don’t fool yourself into thinking they are a transportation agency despite the name. highway engineers see highways as the answer to all problems, hence why it was unfathomable to them to build anything but this project.

  8. This is an aside, but I think it warrants a mention.
    There is a claim that the public voted for a tunnel. That is untrue. The tunnel vote was along the lines of the Pre-K vote. It was advisory, and the tunnel option only received about 30%. A majority of voters did vote to do “something”, but it was not an up down vote on a tunnel. The first sentence of the voters guide was a bold-ed explanation of that.

    Not a huge deal, but just remember that if electeds try to weasel out of responsibility by claiming that they are just doing the will of the people.

  9. So I generally support the surface/transit/I-5 option, but could someone clarify that “surface improvements” would not be at the expense of a pedestrian and urban environment? Surface improvements for motor vehicles could be removing crosswalks, timing lights to flush vehicles through ASAP, removing on-street parking, creating right turn slip lanes, flyovers (like the ones now by the stadiums), etc.

  10. Give Lynn Petersen some credit here. She did say that there’s a possibility that the tunnel will never be finished.


    The media acted as though that were some sort of revelation, but she was just treating the voters like adults. She was saying what anyone who has thought about the project for 5 minutes knows, including, I’m sure, everyone at WSDOT. It would be foolish for anyone to just assume that if Bertha’s fixed everything will suddenly go perfectly. I’m sure many people involved, at both WSDOT and the City, are thinking through a range of scenarios beyond the one of official optimism. This isn’t inside information; nobody inside has told me this. But I have dealt with some of the key players enough to know that they’re not fools.

    As for the “safety” of the viaduct, let’s be adults again. The infantilized public wants to hear absolute declarations of safety, but adults know safety is relative, so it doesn’t matter that much what WSDOT says. I’m sure that Lynn’s engineers are making the most cautious risk assessments that they can afford, for a simple reason: Nothing is more horrifying to an engineer than fatalities on a structure you designed. It goes way beyond liability or ruined careers; it’s the sort of thing that puts you in therapy for the rest of your life.

    The safety of the Viaduct depends on how big a quake you’re expecting, and this has to be put in the context of a larger seismic denial that is also not WSDOT’s fault. Seismic denial is baked into the culture of the Pacific Northwest. Unlike California, the Northwest hasn’t had a big high-fatality quake recently enough for the population to be properly terrified of them. All kinds of stuff is going to fall down in the Big One, and everyone knows that intellectually, but the Nisqually quake wasn’t horrifying enough to engrave the fear into people’s spines in the way that Loma Prieta and Sylmar did for non-millennial Californians.

    I don’t have a problem with the Viaduct being open for the use of adults who are making their own risk assessments, but I wish Metro didn’t have to use it. I have a similar relationship to the temporary Sellwood Bridge in Portland, which has similar issues. I use it now and then and make a conscious risk-assessment each time I do, but I’m glad that the city buses don’t have to.

    Anyway, not disagreeing with Martin about the ultimate wisdom of the project. Just suggesting that the bureaucrats may not be the enemy here.

    1. I’m sure that Lynn’s engineers are making the most cautious risk assessments that they can afford, for a simple reason: Nothing is more horrifying to an engineer than fatalities on a structure you designed. It goes way beyond liability or ruined careers; it’s the sort of thing that puts you in therapy for the rest of your life.

      Jarrett, are you familiar with the Rogers Commission? They produced a report on why the space shuttle Challenger blew up. While the proximate cause was failure of an O-ring, the root cause was found to be a “go culture” at NASA that would not tolerate anything that threatened the timeline.

      Organizational behavior is a funny thing. The question we need to ask is whether WSDOT is suffering from a similar “go culture” that has blinded them to taking the necessary steps and precautions to uphold their duty to public safety in favor of keeping Highway 99 traffic off Seattle streets.

      1. I’m pretty sure there is such a culture at WSDOT — or at least among their political superiors.

        Hell, we’ve got that sort of culture over here at NYSDOT. They tend to be far more conservative. Despite this, they have people driving over the Syracuse Viaduct even though one of the exits *already collapsed with cars on it*.

  11. People keep mentioning the “surface option”, if this was such a great idea, why dont we complete the tunnel and do the surface option as well? Traffic was bad before the tunnel construction and will be bad after its open as well. we need to do it all. We need more transit and increased capacity on i-5. I would also support congestion tolling. No one project will solve our traffic problem. We have the money. Do we have the political will?

    1. Do we have the money? “We”, being the state here, likely doesn’t have enough money to finish the tunnel. Now, they could pull a 520 and start building something before it’s even fully paid for…

      1. The citizens of seattle and king county have enough money to fix our traffic. What we lack is political vision and will.

      2. no, the citizens of seattle and king county do not have enough money to fix “our traffic”. not when billions (in this case no known limit) are spent in the name of fixing traffic only to find traffic worse than before. plus there are numerous other needs for public money from the budget.

    2. The “surface option” isn’t really compatible with the tunnel portals… nor is it in keeping with the compromise that if we’d blow a bunch of money building a goofy bypass for a small subset of drivers we’d also blow a bunch money building a waterfront that’s better for walking.

      1. The surface option included changes to I-5, these could still be done and further transit funding can still happen. We just have to make it happen. Put the compatible elments on a ballot. Ill vote for it.

  12. Once upon a time I used to be a serious commenter on this blog but I haven’t bothered for years now because of the attitudes of certain nameless folks toward what I consider to be a somewhat blinkered and narrow view of Seattle’s place in the regional and state economy. I am a huge fan of mass transit but having efficient and well maintained roads is integral to developing sensible solutions.

    However the chief reason I stopped writing was because of the attitude of just about everyone on this Blog to the Seattle tunnel project, a project I have championed for many reasons since the beginning.

    Most here are probably gloating like anything about the current troubles with Bertha and the tunnel project at large and probably not a few raised their glasses at Christmas to toast what they consider to be the failure of the project at large. Yet the project has NOT failed and the moment to adjudge it to have done so is NOT with us. To say that it has is to leap across the present problems and to presume that others unnamed that haven’t happened inevitably will do so. This is an example of what psychologists call “catastrophic thinking.”

    I have a few remarks to say here in defense of the project and in defense of WSDOT generally. I am not employed by the agency and the agency has not endorsed my remarks.

    I do attend monthly meetings at Milepost 31 in Pioneer Square in Seattle and I do listen intently to updates from Matt Preedy and others at the monthly speaker series. Matt is the deputy tunnel administrator, a decent and cheerful man and an engineer all his life who has been involved with the tunnel project since 2007. I can assure you that neither he nor WSDOT wants the project to fail or the existing viaduct to collapse. If any of you wish to get honest answers to complex questions then I suggest you attend these monthly meetings. Next one begins in February and first Thursday. The purpose of these meetings is to address engineering concerns and not to discuss the politics of the tunnel project. Matt is happy to discuss how the project has unfolded as a civil engineer but the unspoken assumption is that the politics of Bertha have been squared away long ago and that we are in the doing phase of the project.

    Second, linked to the last point, the politics of the tunnel were decided years ago after a stupid ten year discussion as to how best to replace the ugly and damaged existing viaduct. What we have currently therefore, is an engineering problem to getting Bertha mining again requiring a progressively more urgent engineering solution. My understanding is that it is the belief of the engineers working this project that there will be an engineering solution that can be found. This includes strengthening Bertha, replacing the main seal and adding additional holes to accept more muck through the cutterhead. Since the TBM is under warranty some of the responsibility for the design and repair of Bertha’s changes moving forward will belong to Hitachi who need to show more remorse than they have shown so far.

    The repair pit meanwhile is currently 90 feet deep with thirty feet remaining. However it is an extremely complex project as we expected it to be.

    Third, if you feel that WSDOT is incompetent just travel past the amazing work that has been done already on the SR520 main Eastside approach roads and then the Bridge floating deck. These are highly complex projects and how many of us not civil engineers could design this stuff from first shovel to where we are now. This is an amazing project and it is fun and interesting watching them put this together.

    Fourth, the “S” in WSDOT is for “State” and not for “Seattle.” As a state agency it has responsibility for state roads, state rail, and state ferries. It has to serve the problems associated with SR20 through the Cascades, the North Spokane bypass, the I-90 across Snoqualmie Pass, along with a multitude of rail projects associated with High Speed Rail and mudslide issues. In other words the agency is not there to build bicycle paths and transit lanes in Seattle just so we can bus and bike around the place. WSDOT projects are necessarily those that its engineers deem to have an economic benefit for the state as a whole and which the politicians in the state legislature have decided have a political impact.

    In this regard, the SR99 is a state highway. It is not an SDOT road. Any monies not spent on the tunnel project would not get diverted to transit or bicycles. WSDOT has no mandate for either and with the exception of helping out Amtrak with high speed rail projects is not a transit agency.

    Fifth the tunnel project is a designated important part of an overall vision for the Seattle waterfront. The tunnel is also one quarter of WSDOT’s overall responsibity for the viaduct replacement project. The other quarters are the entrance and exit tunnel approach roads and the tearing down of the existing central viaduct. If you toss in the restoration of Alaskan Way and the tearing down of the southern portion of the viaduct then the tunnel is a sixth of the project. Add in the waterfront project and it drops down to a seventh of the whole.

    Sixth, I recently and urgently encouraged Secretary Lynn Peterson to show some much needed leadership on the project and to come down to Seattle to take charge like Governor Gregoire once did when she urged Seattleites to reject Mike McGinn’s somewhat narrow-minded and traffic stopping 28 stoplight replacement road for the viaduct. Lynn Peterson probably was already coming down to Seattle to address the City Council and so my letters to her were likely to have been purely coincidental but I can still persuade myself that it was important to get her to take charge and ownership of the project. Next we need the governor who has not been present that I am aware of since Bertha’s launch party in July 2013 – a time when 5000 of us showed up.

    Seventh, I think the STP will probably not survive the conclusion of the tunnel project unless matters dramatically improve with the speed of repairs to Bertha. But it would be unfair to criticize the STP for failing to take due notice of the somewhat absurd climate that exists in Seattle for transportation projects big and small and that the city seems determined to argue over until their completion. We typically hate these projects until they are built and then we accept them. It is highly difficult to build in Seattle for this reason – that no one trusts anyone and this probably makes it unusual for contractors to want to get anything done here. This has to change. In most areas of the world, contracting combines like the STP would typically be allowed to get on with their jobs without the constant public snipping and snapping that goes on here. Sure they would be required to notify the public with regard to anything major but for the most part they would be required to apply engineering solutions to engineering problems as they emerge. The silence of the public is a sign of respect for professional knowledge and not necessarily for professional incompetence.

    Eight, Sound Transit does great work with its projects and yes, it has figured out how to tunnel here, but it is also incredibly slow with some of them and the outreach portion of their projects are excruciatingly long and protracted. East Link is already two years late without having started construction. The First Hill Streetcar is almost a year late with no recent updates as to when service can begin.

    These are all big projects – whether we are looking at the tunnel, the SR520 or Sound Transit’s various projects. Most will go over budget but private enterprise is not immune either to delays and cost overruns – look at Boeing’s Dreamliner which was 3 years late – more actually if you count battery issues.

    Lastly, the exchange of information between the public and government takes place across a distrustful divide. I call it a distrustocracy to be honest. We don’t trust politicians to lead and the politicians don’t trust us to let them and it is often at the crucial exchange of information that trust most breaks down. Most of you here probably expect WSDOT to break down in tears and tell us that they never wanted the tunnel in the first place and that their internal reviews are all telling them that but why when there is a chance that if such internal reviews were even telling them that (and I don’t know if they are or not) would they want to inform the public of them when there is also a chance that such reviews could be wrong and that they can build the tunnel? Which of the two perspectives would the public latch on to? The first, right that the tunnel cannot be built. But what if it can as well? All the uproar would cancel the project based on being deaf to the second set of opinions and only hearing the first. This is not a good way to build projects anywhere. Most tunnel projects get built including engineering marvels such as the Channel Tunnel between England and France.

    At this point, I would urge caution and allow the STP to continue to develop engineering solutions to the problems they encounter. WSDOT is not going to allow the existing viaduct to remain open if there is a danger of its collapsing. They are not an agency of deatheaters as in Harry Potter. I have met lots of WSDOT employees down the years and have yet to meet one who wants to destroy Seattle to satisfy some internal agency lust.

    Thank you for your time.


    1. How many billions is this tunnel worth to you? Four? Five? Six? What level of projected cost would justify scrapping this project?

      Another question: since you have so much love for quality highway infrastructure, will you be paying the toll and driving through this tunnel every day?

      1. Even at triple the price it should be done. We finish what we start.

        I will be gladly paying the toll and enjoying the new waterfront park.

        I will also support transit and tolling. We can do it all. We just need to want it bad enough.

    2. Thanks Tim for sharing your thoughts. I don’t have a dog in this hunt anymore, except for being a WA taxpayer. I’ll make my two brief points then sit down.
      DBT Project:
      From the beginning, the DBT has been ablaze with decision making from within the ‘echo chamber’. Pols, engineers, consulting firms, and all the other special interest groups try their best to read the tea leaves, then get out in front to ensure their own interests are met. When the consensus turned that DBT was feasible and the best solution, it didn’t take long for reasoned discussion to get knocked down by those pleased with the direction it was taking. Wells discusses some of those points earlier.
      With all that said, DBT was a high risk venture given the soils and diameter of the bore. Here’s the problem. Th ise yearlong breakdown occurred where a rescue shaft could be dug. What happens when it advances under multi story buildings it will soon be under? Plug the pressure face, and drag the contraption back to the start line for repairs? Buy the building, knock it down and repeat?
      Mega Projects in General:
      As you have done, I too no longer comment here on LRT issues. No matter how many years behind schedule the current plan goes; no matter how much is spent on the current plan to complete, and no matter how few new riders contribute to significant gains in transit mode share of total trips taken, most STB contributors hold the line on figuring how the glass is partly full, instead of mostly empty. The simple truth is that transit has not increased its mode share in 25 years for all the billions spent and increases in taxation. ST3 will continue that trend. Transit is losing the battle, and WSDOT is still required to carry 80% of all trips, in the face of stagnant lane miles and rising population. The bright light is that VMT’s are pretty flat lately.
      Finally, the DBTlike it or not, has become a poster child for voter frustration in building large projects that languish, while still sucking at the sows tit.

      1. “As you have done, I too no longer comment here on LRT issues.”

        Of course you don’t, mic. Your fallacies keep getting corrected, and you don’t hang around once that happens.

        If the buses are full, and no more buses are added, it makes it rather difficult for transit to increase modeshare. And of course, if we do as you call for, and keep voting against any and all new transit funding, it makes it more difficult to add more buses.

        But hey, enjoy your fantasy that we can stuff a lot more people on the existing buses.

      2. And to your over simplification and fabrication of truths Brent. You’re content with tripling transit taxation for the same crappy 3% mode share. I’m not, but the course of transit is set in concrete, so why continue the pointless debate. All the LRPs, public meetings, and alternatives considered are mostly window dressing now.

      3. “And to your over simplification and fabrication of truths Brent. You’re content with tripling transit taxation for the same crappy 3% mode share. I’m not, but the course of transit is set in concrete, so why continue the pointless debate. All the LRPs, public meetings, and alternatives considered are mostly window dressing now.”

        Ah, an actual debate! Next, mic will even present a datapoint. One can dream.

        None of the claims in your quote are true. But lets start from the basics. 3% of what?

      4. Brent: Next we’ll look at taxation for all 5 transit agencies (ST,MT,CT,PT,ET).
        In 1990 taxation was $375m, adjusted for inflation would be about $675m, (2015$$).
        All 5 agencies combined will collect about 1.8B, excluding fares, next year, so ‘about’ a three fold increase in actual taxation.
        I’m all for building for the future, but transit continues stuck at single digit mode share numbers from the past.
        Has the juice been worth the squeeze? I don’t see it yet, and we’re talking about doubling down again with ST3 and 4.
        Could that money have been spent more wisely, or will we foolishly continue pouring concrete into ST5 chasing the mythical hordes waiting in Everett and Tacoma for a ride to Seattle.

      5. Thank you for the first link, mic.

        Results from PSRC’s Regional Household Activity Surveys in 1999 and 2006 show an increase in the number of trips made by transit and walking has corresponded with a decrease in the number of trips made by car, as shown in Figure 1. Trips made by transit increased 71 percent (270,000 to 460,000 daily trips) from 1999 to 2006, while walking increased by 34 percent (610,000 to 820,000 daily trips).

      6. The ST portion of taxation includes a large chunk of capital spending for projects that are not open yet. So, can you adjust your figures to account for that?

        Metro express service continues to gain share of Metro’s operating budget. Same for ST Express. As those buses fill up to the brim, more service hours get deployed for express service. Any argument with that practice?

        SInce 2012, partially empty all-day, and even some peak, Metro bus routes have been getting cut. Any argument with that practice?

        Transit agencies plan to make sure they have more than enough capacity for expected ridership. Agree or disagree? (This is a question about whether projections are “promises”, in case that isn’t obvious.)

        Downtown Tacoma and downtown Everett are job centers. Agree or disagree?

        Downtown Tacoma and downtown Everett are losing employers and total jobs, with some of those employers moving to where there is better transit connectivity. Agree or disagree?

      7. Mic’s cost figures should also be adjusted for population increases between 1990 and now. Even if the mode share doesn’t increase, more people in the area means there are more people riding and a need for more service. Also, as long as we’re funding transit mostly from the sales tax, having more people in the area will generally lead to more tax being collected.

      8. I didn’t intent to stray this far off topic of the DBT, but when Brent calls me a liar, I feel compelled to defend myself.
        Reply to Mr. White: No, No, Agree, Agree, Agree
        Reply to aw: Yes, population is increasing since 1990 and a stable tax rate would generate more revenue because of it.
        In 1990 transit in the 3 counties provided 111m unlinked trips.
        In 2012 that had risen to 129m trips. I doubt that even kept pace with population growth and mode share remains flat – which was my original point.
        Sure, there are some really great trends, like 40% mode share to the Seattle CBD in the AM peak by transit, but that’s still a small number compared to total trips taken in the region. I suppose the debate could or should be on what’s being built.
        1. All day (car free) transit for everyone.
        2. BART2, snag ’em in the AM and haul their butts to frisco.
        3. something in the middle.
        (sources: WSDOTPublic Transportation Systems in WA State 1990, 2012 & Nat’l Transit Database, latest figures available, plus latest agency reports online)

      9. I’m so old I remember when mic, just a few months ago, that the region’s urban population population was growing faster than any other city in the developed world by orders of magnitude, and faster than all cities in the developing world except perhaps for Karachi, because doing so was necessary to interpret the data such that it demonstrated no transit mode share increase. He’s been shown this mode share claim is wrong before, but he doesn’t care–he’ll admit his error in real time, but return to it later. His commitment to this lie transcends both facts and reason.


      10. Transit will need a major shot of funding in the next decade or two as oil prices continue on their upward trend (hint: don’t get fooled by what you pay at the pump today; I can almost guarantee that the prices will be up by at least another dollar in the next six months as bakken crude production is reduced due to cheaper crude from the OPEC countries). Right now with ST we are barely “keeping up”. All of our major transit agencies would have to double, if not triple their current levels of service to start to reverse that trend. Sadly, that is not going to happen as our funding source is volatile and we have lost so much infrastructure in cuts already that it would take 3-5 years to be able to start rolling that out. equipment and facilities takes years to procure and build. it also takes a good year to train a driver from scratch and have him or her able to do their job well.

    3. It was ‘narrow-minded’ Wsdot leaders, not Mayor McGinn, who rigged surface street studies to the ‘pre-determined’ outcome of its rejection. Wsdot studies in 2008 proposed 3 surface street configurations for SR99 with 27-30 stoplights, as Tim said. However, department heads knew that as few as 10 stoplights is possible. Instead of 5 stoplights on both Aurora and Sodo, none. Instead of 5-8 stoplights in Lower Belltown, none. Instead of 13 stoplights on the waterfront, 10 is possible and necessary to adequately manage waterfront traffic expected to triple from 12,000 to 35,000 vehicles daily.

      I would reply to more of Tim’s verbose commentary, but it amounts to little more than ‘just do it’ nevermind grave concerns regarding bore tunnel ‘suitability’ in unstable soils beneath vulnerable historic and modern buildings. Wsdot incompetence is plainly evident and to such a degree that corruption and criminality should not be casually dismissed. If the bore tunnel is completed, the good people of Seattle will suffer worsened traffic and an oppressive fear of its inevitable, catastrophic failure.

      1. Wells, can you elaborate on this?

        “oppressive fear of its inevitable, catastrophic failure.”

        What about the design of the dbt is unsafe compared to all of the rest of the tunnels in the city?

      2. Fils. The DSTT ‘twin tubes’ are are smaller diameter bore tunnels, ‘anchored’ by subway station ‘box structure’, and pass through more stable soils. Its passage below Portage Bay is ‘perpendicular’ to the shoreline with few buildings above affected. The BNSF tunnel also passes through more stable soils all above sea level. The DBT passes through unstable soils (watery, soluable, maleable) below sea level as far north as Denny Way. The bore tunnel shell will act as a ‘conduit’ for groundwater to spread along its length and create a ‘maleable mud bed’ below sea level possibly as far north as Denny Way. In major earthquakes predicted, the completed bore tunnel will first ‘swing’ and then ‘osscillate’ sending groundwater in all directions including directly upward toward building foundations. Between earthquakes, groundwater will increase in volume and lead to the formation of ‘cavernous collapsable voids’ which could collapse all the way to the surface in moderate earthquake or even vibrations from tunnel traffic. The seawall replacement technique “drill-fill sea fence” is NOT impermeable to water breaking through thus compounding the hazard of increased groundwater volume, siltration, formation of voids, sudden destructive forces in earthquake.

        Cut-Cover Tunnels compress soils below and stabilize soils to the east. They are more stable in earthquakes. Bore tunnels cause unstable soils to settle and spread along their curved sides and length. Both can remain whole in earthquakes; the danger is to buildings above. Boston’s Big Dig was a cut-cover through the central city section adjacent to historic and modern buildings near the waterfront. If you can picture any of this, many people will fear a latent potential for building collapse and the loss of hundreds even thousands of lives, many more possible fatalities than an AWV collapse. Wsdot thus commits willful reckless endangerment. Wsdot’s Mercer West has an increased potential for accident and accident severity; also willful reckless endangerment. Wsdot honchos do not care about public safety.

      3. Wells, thank you for giving some of the engineering details. These are some of the reasons why every engineering study said that a shallow tunnel / seawall combo would work, but a deep bore tunnel would never work. (There are other reasons too.)

      4. “. Wsdot incompetence is plainly evident and to such a degree that corruption and criminality should not be casually dismissed. ”

        I’m not sure you can entirely blame WSDOT.

        The Governor and legislative leaders at the time explicitly ordered WSDOT to build a deep bore tunnel against the advice of all engineers involved.

        You can DEFINITELY blame Gregoire and the legislative leaders at the time. The legislative leaders are still in the legislature, I think. They bypassed the federally-mandated environmental impact process in order to push a politically-motivated “deep bore” choice. It was actually criminal.

    4. Apple and Oranges. We are talking about transits mode share of all trips taken in the region, not your ‘gotcha’ on extracting the wrong population figure from the NTD on a different subject.
      If transit has suddenly had a threefold increase in total mode share over the competition, the automobile, Please cite your claim and reference.

    5. The biggest problem with the DBT is that people don’t really want it. The tolling scenario is only going to cover 10% of the cash costs, and well less when considering the non-cash costs like pollution. Now all transportation is subsidized, but a 90% subsidy of the cash cost alone ought to make it obvious: people don’t really want this. If you wanted something, you would be willing to pay for it. Imagine a restaurant selling brunch for $10, the cost of production. When that restaurant can only sell brunches with a $9 off coupon, not even an $8 off coupon will do, it ought to be clear that the brunch sucks.

      I appreciate that was a long process to arrive at the DBT option and also that there are probably engineering solutions to the problems so far, and that there would probably even be an engineering solution if Bertha got stuck beneath a large building, but the DBT still remains a bad infrastructure decision.

      1. The process to arrive at the DBT option consisted of governor Gregoire in a (metaphorically smoke-filled) back room with some members of the legislature.

        This is a matter of public record, you can look it up in the newspaper archives.

        The DBT was the one option which was specifically rejected by all the technical / engineering / planning studies. Shallow tunnel was OK, new viaduct was OK, surface road was OK, but DBT was explicitly rejected as not viable, repeatedly.

        The DBT was done solely becuase of political orders from politicians who didn’t listen to engineers *at all*.

    6. No matter what some people say on this board in various delusions of a Seattle transit-topia, expanding transit service is not going to fully eliminate the need for N-S passage through the city. In fact, based on my recent experiences driving through the city on surface streets (which I try to avoid at all possible cost) it is evident to me that without major changes (including removing or modifying the 2nd avenue bike trail) that a highway 99 replacement of some form is still needed. Ultimately the decision to close 99 due to structural issues is with WSDOT. The decision to repair/reopen/or close it entirely it is political. WSDOT will do what it is told to do by the state leg, if the people want to close it and remove it and not look the other way your local politician will have to be convinced of that first. otherwise the thing stays open until it is no more.

    7. Tim, the deep bore tunnel was a gross mistake in the first place. This is not a matter of opinion; this is simply a matter of fact. Did you read the initial studies? I did.

      There were several possibilities which were considered viable, including the shallow tunnel / seawall combo.

      The deep bore tunnel was specifically excluded on the grounds that it was not viable.

      The state government at the time made a “smoke-filled” back room deal to do the deep bore tunnel; this is actualy a matter of public record. (Probably not literally smoke-filled.) This was done against the advice of every engineer who’d ever looked at it.

  13. I appreciate the sincere expressions of the tunnel proponent above, and the comments of the “mode share shift is not occurring” guy but really this blog is also about land use — and expanding highways and surface streets for mostly single occupancy vehicles is not conducive to a pleasant and livable urban environment.

    A stupid tunnel that moves SOV traffic underneath tens of thousands of jobs and housing units is an idiotic investment. Congestion charge i-5 if you need more capacity. If an earthquake hits, send the traffic to surface streets until repairs are made.

    The tunnel is only good for recession era job creation and that time is over.

    1. Ronp, the DBT does not expand or add capacity to SR99, it partially replaces its capacity. We need the DBT, signal priority for transit, offboard payment,greater frequency and congestion tolling i-5.

      1. Fils. I’ve always recommended the Box Cut-Cover Tunnel/Seawall in the FEIS as more stable and still possible by directing the completed section of bore tunnel to it and finish near Pike Street. The AWV can remain in place during its construction, and debris removed to the south via the tunnel. Wsdot also rigged their studies of the Box Cut-Cover Tunnel/Seawall.

        Seattle needs a downtown-specific transit reconfiguration. Since 2003, I’ve proposed streamlining the trolleybus system to reduce overhead wire and especially turns. Trolleybuses are ideal for hill-climbing. Seven ‘pairs’ of streets east/west for trolleybus, one direction on one street, the opposite direction on the pair. Spring/Madison and James/Cherry would run from the waterfront past Broadway and return on 12th. Pike/Pine would run from 1st Ave past Broadway and return on 12th. Bell/Blanchard would run to Denny Way then north on Bellevue/Summit and return. The furthest north ‘pair’ would run from Western via Broad/Denny then a turn through Thomas/John then back to Denny to 12th and return. Virginia/Stewart would run to Fairview and the UW line. The furthest south ‘pair’ would run from Western via Washington/Yesler to Broadway and the Rainier line. This is not that much new wire, just more streamlined than the existing system; less dewirement, less overhead wire clutter. I propose a single ‘pair’ north/south on 1st and 3rd Aves in both directions between Mercer and Jackson. I propose locating the streetcar ‘connector’ on 4th/5th Aves instead of 1st Ave because median stations is not a good idea and there’s too much traffic. Trolleybuses on 1st Ave could pull out of traffic, run more frequently and keep all transit stops on the curb. Streetcar on 4th/5th spreads transit electrification to those corridors and makes the better connection to a Waterfront Streetcar line.

        These ‘circulator’ trolleybus lines match supply to demand with the least number of vehicles specifically designed for hillclimbing, low-floor and multi-door entry. The 1st/3rd Trolleybus Circulator aims for 5-minute frequency. The East/West trolleybus circulators aim for 10-minute frequency. Once this system is in place, motorists can park at their first convenient garage and take transit. 2nd and 4th Aves are dedicated to limited stop thru-transit bus routes. It’s called the Seattle Circulator Plan. The City has always refused to give it a fair review. Of all the US transit systems I’ve studied, Metro is the worst. Go figure.

    2. Please, gentlemen, come back from NeverNeverLand. You may not “congestion toll” I-5. It’s against Federal Law, and the Feds paid for almost every single rivet on the Ship Canal Bridge and every cubic yard of concrete in the roadway. The “local share” match was almost all right of way purchases.

      Even if the Republicans “go big” on “SmallGubmint® and repeal the Federal Fuel Tax, they won’t repeal the prohibition of congestion tolling. They don’t live “interference in the free market”, even when it would be good for society and even when it would actually be good for business.

      Just give it up and come up with some other way to increase revenues to support transit.

      1. There are all kinds of political possibilities in this world and changing laws to allow maximizing the use of expensive climate changing infrastructure is amazingly possible. Easy no, but really possible..

        You do not need to replace general travel capacity when there is billions of dollars of transit ready to serve housing and jobs in the very location of the new tolled tunnel.

        I think we need to built a better urban environment not an efficient way to quickly move around internal combustion vehicles mostly filled with one person each.

      2. Oh, you can do it. If the state really wanted to.

        The way you do it:
        (1) redirect I-5 to a different route (I-405) and “de-Interstate” the bridge.
        (2) toll the bridge.

        States have gotten permission to do #1 before, repeatedly; it just requires that the state push.

      3. (The state government doesn’t want to toll the Ship Canal Bridge, of course. But if it did want to, the Feds would not be a serious obstacle. The real obstacle is the state.)

  14. I expect a catastrophe. Everything about this, from the first delays in tearing the viaduct down, through the first backroom deal for the DBT, and on to the poorly-thought-out “rescue” operation, has been driven by short-sighted politicians who refuse to listen to engineers.

    Therefore I’m certain that this is what’s going on:
    “managers are willfully ignoring technical advice for political or reputational reasons.”

    They’ve been doing this on the viaduct replacement project since day one. Obviously they are still doing this.

    The Viaduct is clearly unsafe. Do not drive on it and do not drive under it. The state insists on claiming it is safe for political or reputational reasons.

  15. Nobody wants it or needs it but the hat in hand carpet baggers and unions. Cars are obsolete as are manned freight hauling. Building this shrine to cars is a sham and should be stopped. Invest the money in brt and move on.

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