So much, with Seattle-area tunnel-boring machines, stems from Bertha.
Pre-Bertha, we were blessed with giant underground drills named for heroic sled dogs – Balto and Togo – who helped deliver diphtheria medication to Alaska. Post-Bertha, we got drilling machines dredged from some horrid purgatory of corporate conformity – tunnel-boring machine 1 and tunnel-boring machine 2.
But now, with Bertha disassembled for scrap and the Highway 99 Tunnel firmly ensconced beneath Seattle, we’re ready to turn the page…or drill a new hole…to a new era. Or something. Whatever.
A contest is on.
Seattle Public Utilities and the King County Wastewater Treatment Division have got themselves a tunnel-boring machine that’s about to spend 14 months building a 2.7-mile storage tunnel on the north shore of the Ship Canal, running from Ballard to Wallingford. The resulting tunnel, 18-feet, 10-inches in diameter, will collect sewage and polluted stormwater, 75 million gallons a year, according to the city, to prevent it from flowing into the Ship Canal, Lake Union and Salmon Bay.
And the city would like your help in naming the machine.
From more than 1,200 submissions, the city has culled five finalists.
And the nominees are:
Daphne, named after daphnia, a type of water flea, credited with helping clear the waters of Lake Washington of blue-green algae after sewage stopped regularly flowing into the lake in the 1960s.
Molly the Mole, named after, well, an alliterative mole. Moles dig tunnels.
Boris the Plunger, combining references to boring (Boris) and underground infrastructure (Plunger, plumbing, etc).
Sir Digs-A-Lot, named after the local rapper. “We like big drills and we cannot lie,” Seattle Public Utilities wrote.
MudHoney, named after the Seattle grunge pioneers. The tunnel-boring machine, SPU wrote, “loves mud and is pretty sweet.”
Submissions that did not make the cut included Borey McDillface, Drilly McTunnel, Macklebore and Leonardo DiCrappio.
There were also “So. Many. Poop jokes,” Seattle Public Utilities scolded, gently. “We know it wasn’t all 3rd graders submitting these, either.”
The jovial names should not disguise the scale of the task. This is a mega-project, $570 million and 11 years in the making. Funding comes from the city (65%) and the county (35%) and ultimately, largely from your utility bills.
The machine arrived, in pieces, from its German manufacturer about six weeks ago. In the coming weeks, it will be lowered by crane, still in five pieces, into an 80-foot wide, 70-foot deep hole. Once lowered, the beast will be assembled – a 900,000 pound earth-moving locomotive that will, eventually, carry a 450-foot train behind it.
The train is necessary because the machine has to not only drill the earth, but haul all that dirt back out and build the tunnel, in its wake, as it goes. A separate, much smaller, drill head will run facing the opposite direction to load the displaced dirt onto conveyor belts and train cars. They’ll add fluid conditioner to the soil to make it just the right consistency so it flows.
“Your goal is toothpaste, you have to turn the earth into toothpaste,” said Tim Barker, a tunnel inspector on the project.
Once drilling starts, the machine will work 24-hours a day, five or six days a week. If all goes well, it will drill 60-feet a day. It will tunnel uphill all the way, so that wastewater will ultimately flow downhill, from Wallingford toward Ballard, where it will be pumped to the West Point Treatment Plant in Magnolia.
Currently, drainage basins in Queen Anne, Ballard, Fremont and Wallingford, overflow an average of about 144 times a year – basically any time there’s heavy or prolonged rain, the city said. Once the project – which is mandated by a federal consent decree that requires the county to reduce storm and wastewater pollution – is completed in 2025 (hopefully), overflows should drop to fewer than six per year, the city said.
It’s a big project, but, some perspective: At 21.5 feet, the tunnel-boring machine’s diameter is higher than two basketball hoops, and only about a third of Bertha’s. The area displaced by the cutterhead is about one-seventh of Bertha’s.
Back to the names.
Daphne and Molly have history on their side. There’s a long tradition of naming tunnel-boring machines after women. It dates back centuries and comes from St. Barbara, the patron saint of miners and engineers.
A tunnel under construction in Melbourne, Australia, is being drilled by machines named Joan, Meg, Alice and Millie.
In New York City, recent tunnel-boring machines have been dubbed Molina and Adi (after the granddaughters of construction bosses) and Georgina and Emma (after former Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s kids).
A few years back, Los Angeles had Angeli, digging twin light rail tunnels.
And, of course, there was Bertha.
Barker, the tunnel inspector, also worked on the 99 Tunnel project, as well as the light-rail tunnels connecting Capitol Hill and the University of Washington.
But all anyone asks about is Bertha.
“Oh my God, so many people, so many times,” Barker said. “One of these days they’ll actually finish the lawsuit and we can talk about it, but until then, I don’t know anything.”
(Legal challenges continue over who is responsible for Bertha’s stall, but the state won a crucial first round when a jury ruled in late 2019 that contractors owed the state $57 million for project delays.)
She was named after Bertha Knight Landes, the first woman to lead a major American city and, until 2017, Seattle’s only female mayor. The name, suggested by elementary school students in Poulsbo and Hoquiam and bestowed upon what was then the world’s largest tunnel-boring machine, conferred heft, sobriety, gravitas.
But Bertha ran into some much-publicized drama, in the form of an unforeseen, subterranean steel pipe that cost her a two-year delay and spawned lawsuits over tens of millions in cost overruns.
Suddenly, the name took on new meaning: incompetence, fiasco, sinkholes.
Sound Transit, the leading local tunneling agency (but not the one responsible for Bertha) forswore naming its tunnel-boring machines and even re-dubbed two of the giant drills already in operation, to try to shed the Bertha stink.
In a win for fans of all things drab and dull, Sound Transit tunnel-borers Brenda and Pamela (named after the wives of two managers of the contracting company) became tunnel-boring machine 1 and tunnel-boring machine 2, respectively.
People kept confusing Brenda (on schedule, building light rail) with Bertha (woefully behind, building a highway), and it wasn’t doing Sound Transit any favors.
“People confuse our projects, which agency is overseeing which project, and which machines are doing which work,” a spokesperson said at the time.
But, exactly five years after this nomenclature nadir, our local utilities have rediscovered their joie de vivre.
Well, maybe. Sound Transit, which still has several tunnels in its future, isn’t yet on board.
“The naming of tunnel-boring machines hasn’t come up,” agency spokesperson Rachelle Cunningham said. She did say she was looking forward to finding out which name is chosen for the big sewer dig.