I never supported the risky deep bore tunnel option for replacing the Alaska Way Viaduct, but neither am I one of those doom and gloomers who apparently believe that Americans have lost their ability to build big things. So when it was first announced that the world's largest deep-bore tunneling machine was stuck 60 feet underground, I was neither particularly surprised nor particularly concerned. We're a relatively smart species. Unforeseen contingencies might raise the cost, I thought, but we'd no doubt figure it out.
But considering the curious chronology of events, and the lack of forthrightness from WSDOT, I'm beginning to wonder if "Bertha" is actually stuck at all?
Consider this: Contrary to initial reports, Bertha did not actually hit a steel pipe and grind to a halt. No, apparently Bertha hit a steel pipe (and maybe a boulder, some concrete, and other unexpected objects), but continued to drill forward for a couple days before coming to a stop. And there it sits to this day, after digging only about a thousand feet of tunnel.
And it is that 1000-foot mark that makes me wonder. For according to the WSDOT website:
Japanese firm Hitachi Zosen Corp. manufactured the machine for Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP), the contracting team that’s building the tunnel. Hitachi has successfully built more than 1,300 tunneling machines, a number of them for large-diameter tunnel projects. The machine will not officially become the property of STP until it has tunneled approximately 1,000 feet without any issues.
Coincidence? Or, perhaps, have WSDOT and STP halted tunneling while they consider whether to send Bertha back to Hitachi for a refund?
"Stuck" and "halted" imply two different things. "Stuck" implies that Bertha simply can't move forward. "Halted" may imply that WSDOT and/or its contractors have lost their confidence in this particular tunnel boring machine to complete the job. And that, perhaps could signal the worst of the worst-case scenarios: a huge delay as Bertha is reengineered or replaced, or the project is abandoned entirely. (Or maybe, simply, WSDOT and STP temporarily halted drilling out of an abundance of caution? I dunno.)
Of course, I'm just speculating. But given the lack of forthrightness coming from WSDOT, who isn't?