Since December 2013, the tunnel boring machine (“TBM”) known as “Bertha,” built by of Hitachi Zosen Corp. of Osaka, has been stuck underground Seattle’s waterfront about 1,000′ from where it began.  It (she) is now expected to resume digging at the end of March 2015, after crews fix the damage to its seals and bearings.  Seattle Tunnel Partners (“STP”), the general contractor for the project, is digging a concrete-piling-lined pit in front of the stuck TBM.  STP will then tunnel its way through the pilings, giving workers access to Bertha’s cutter head.  Next, STP is expected to remove the cutter head and repair whatever needs to be repaired.  This is no simple task: at 57.5′ in diameter, Bertha is the world’s largest TBM.  Since the machine is stuck underground, STP does not presently know the extent of damage.  There is simply no telling what will happen once Bertha is “unearthed.”  In a recent radio interview, Washington’s Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson acknowledged that there was a “small possibility” that the tunnel will never get built.  The only scenario in which that might happen, according to Ms. Peterson, is if STP and WSDOT discover that “the machine is not going to actually be fixable.” [i]

Meanwhile, “Brenda,” a smaller TBM build by the same firm that built Bertha, will soon start tunneling under North Seattle.[ii]  Weighing in at 1 million lbs., Brenda is 300′ long, including a conveyor system that removes soil from the tunneling and a cutter head of 21′ in diameter (less than half the size of Bertha).  Brenda is touted as having a proven track record: it has already successfully completed the twin 1 mile light rail tunnels between Capitol Hill and downtown Seattle, which goes under I-5.  On this new dig, Brenda is one of three TBMs that will bore a 4.3-mile tunnel from Husky stadium to Northgate.  The project (a $2.1 billion construction job) is slated to be completed in 2021.  Brenda will again be operated by the same team that made the twin tunnels between Capitol Hill and downtown Seattle: a joint venture of Jay Dee Contractors of Michigan, Frank Coluccio Construction Co. of Seattle, and Michaels Corp. from Wisconsin.  The joint venture’s bid to perform the Northgate tunnel was 25% less than the engineers’ estimate.  Frank Coluccio Construction Co. and Jay Dee Contractors were the joint venture that rescued the Brightwater Tunneling Project a few years ago.  That dispute resulted in a $100 plus million verdict against Vinci Construction Grands Projects/Parsons RCI/Frontier-Kemper (“VPFK”).  Read more about the Brightwater Project here and here.

Comment: After significant delays and the attendant cost of delaying a billion dollar project, it is difficult to envision that STP is on schedule for a timely completion of the project and any profitability for its joint venture.  Therefore, it is entirely likely that, at the end of the day, forces will align and the once touted project to improve Seattle’s waterfront never becomes a reality.  There is speculation that Ms.  Peterson may be managing the expectation of Washington voters that this high profile project, which has garnered international attention, may never see the light at the end of the tunnel (pun intended).

[i] Erica C. Barnett, Seattle Met, Tuesday Jolt: WSDOT Secretary Says “Small Possibility” Tunnel Won’t Be Built, April 29, 2014.

[ii] Marc Stiles, Puget Sound Business Journal, Bertha’s stalled, but Brenda’s ready to roll once again, April 28, 2014.

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