In Our View: Bertha Offers Vital Lessons

Seattle tunnel-boring boondoggle shows state needs new tack on transportation

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Because it has been awhile, this might be a good time to check in on Washington's favorite transportation project and see how Bertha is doing beneath the streets of Seattle. … Yep, it's still there. Still stuck where it has been for the past eight months. Still representing the state's almost-comical foibles with major construction projects. Yes, those foibles would be comical — if there weren't hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars at play.

You may have heard of Bertha. The device, with a diameter of 57.5 feet, is billed as the world's largest tunnel-boring machine, and it has been tasked with carving an underground path for the purpose of replacing Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct. The idea is to improve safety by eliminating a highway system that could be vulnerable to an earthquake, and to open up the city's waterfront to commercial development.

Well, Bertha started doing her thing late last year and then ran into an 8-inch steel pipe that stopped it in its tracks. A counter on the Washington Department of Transportation website notes that Bertha has traveled 1,023 feet in its planned 9,270-foot journey. There have been developments, even if there hasn't been progress. Seattle Tunnel Partners is building a 120-foot-deep pit to reach Bertha. When the pit is complete, the machine will tunnel forward into it, so workers can access and reinforce Bertha's tunnel-boring head.

Someday, the project will become a case study for university engineering students. But for now it serves as an example that changes are needed in how Washington approaches megaprojects. Bertha's breakdown and potential revival are expected to cost $125 million, not to mention the cost of an expected 15-month delay in a project that already had a price tag of more than $4 billion. The latest boondoggle can be added to the mess that has been the replacement of the state Highway 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington. That project has been beset by problems — including improperly designed pontoons — that have left it years behind schedule and added hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost.

In the wake of such missteps, many legislators — particularly Republicans — have called for reform in how the Washington State Department of Transportation conducts its business. House Bill 2070 this year was designed to improve efficiency and accountability in the department, but the bill languished in the Rules Committee.

For its part, WSDOT in May posted details of 10 proposed reforms on its website, ranging from "Ensure efficiency and accuracy through strong management direction" to "Lean, more cost-effective operations." As the department notes, "WSDOT must implement common-sense changes that foster efficient, effective, and accountable government for those we serve." And WSDOT has, on occasion, demonstrated an ability to act quickly and effectively, as it replaced the Interstate 5 Skagit River Bridge within four months of the structure's collapse in 2013. Still, speed and efficiency have not been a hallmark of transportation projects in this state.

All of which will add to the long list of pressing issues facing the new Legislature in January. Lawmakers will be tasked with passing transportation funding as needed projects continue to pile up, and changes to WSDOT should accompany that funding. It will be a tall order for lawmakers already facing crucial decisions regarding funding for K-12 education and for mental-health care.

Meanwhile, Bertha will be stuck in place, serving as a symbol of the state's transportation foibles.