Contractor: Evidence Could Put Taxpayers On The Hook For Bertha Cost Overruns

Feb 11, 2014

Washington transportation officials and the private contractor operating the tunneling machine known as Bertha disagree on what’s holding up progress on the Highway 99 tunnel project. Neither had definitive answers, but appearing together Tuesday at a news conference, it became clear they’re leaning toward conflicting theories.

What's To Blame For Bertha's Woes?

While Washington Department of Transportation administrator Todd Trepanier reiterated that the state doesn’t believe an obstruction is to blame, Seattle Tunnel Partners project manager Chris Dixon said his company hasn’t ruled out the 8 inch-diameter steel pipe Bertha bit down on late last year.

Dixon said it’s possible that pipe so damaged the cutting tools on the front of the machine that Bertha’s cutterhead would have been left spinning vainly against hard dirt. That, in turn, could have cause overheating inside the machine, leading to damage to the bearing seals.

Another explanation is that the damaged seals leaked lubricant and/or allowed tunnel muck inside the bearing, causing friction there that spiked the temperature readings. Both parties repeated that these scenarios are speculative and that they expect to know more by week’s end.

Who Will Have To Pay For Cost Overruns?

The role of the pipe is important because a state contractor is the one who sunk it there after the Nisqually earthquake. The pipe’s location was included in contract documents, so WSDOT’s Trepanier said even if the pipe is the culprit, that wouldn’t leave the state on the hook.

Dixon said the contractor hasn’t made the case yet to the state that taxpayers should foot the bill, but said, “We believe that there is evidence” that the state has some responsibility.

But Gov. Jay Inslee, speaking earlier Tuesday, said he has seen “no evidence” that would put anyone other than the contractor and the manufacturer on the hook for cost overruns.

“The citizens of the state of Washington are like somebody who owns a house and hired a contractor to remodel the house. And this is an important concept,” the governor said. “This is not a situation where the state Department of Transportation designed something that didn’t work. We did what’s called a design build contract where the contractor takes full responsibility for the project.”

As for Bertha, Dixon said the company does believe the main bearing, a crucial component protected by the damaged seals, is intact. Still, repairing the seals is likely to take months, both parties said. Crews could either access the damaged parts through the tunnel, or they may have to dig a shaft from the surface to access it from above.