Bertha, girl, why dont you come around here anymore?
  • WSDOT
  • Bertha, girl, why don't you come around here anymore?

I've been asking officials at the Washington State Department of Transportation some basic questions about how far behind the state's deep-bore tunnel project is for weeks—but the state refuses to answer.

The massive machine named Bertha, which is digging the tunnel under downtown Seattle, has been stuck for more than two months, and she was delayed a month last year during a labor dispute. When she was turning dirt, the machine moved slower than expected.

But the state has a schedule for tunneling. On megapojects like these, there are always plans, milestones, dates that things are supposed to happen. So based on that plan, the state could more or less explain where they expected to be by now and how far behind they've gotten.

I've asked them, I've called them, I've e-mailed them.

Finally, I sent an another e-mail yesterday—which I posted below—to the lead spokespeople on the project. It's been more than a day with no response (after weeks of no responses). So I'm posting my e-mail below.

Before I get to it, though, I want to be clear why I'm pressing the state for answers. State officials have been misleading the public about the scale of this problem. After the machine stalled, they claimed on December 9 on Twitter that the machine was "working fine" and had simply "encountered an obstruction." But KIRO and the Seattle Times discovered in a records request the machine had problems two days before the date they claimed the machine was working property. Mike Lindblom reported that "sand got into the bearing grease on the afternoon of Dec. 7. The high temperature caused the machine to shut down several times that day."

The state wasn't being honest—their machine was not "working fine."

An obstruction hadn't stopped the machine, either. The state dropped bad news last last Friday afternoon that the machine is broken. Then last night they said it would take "months" to fix, and officials don't even know the scope of the problem or how they will fix it.

With more delays and costs piling on, the public deserves to know more about this project. WSDOT held a press conference at 3 p.m. today and invited other reporters. But not me. (Was it something that I wrote?). Maybe tey are trying to avoid hard questions, like the ones I sent them this e-mail. Since they won't reply, I'm posting it here:

Subject: Re: Please comment, estimates delays and costs.
From: Dominic Holden
Date: February 10, 2014 11:35:33 AM PST
To: Laura Newborn, Yerkan, KaDeena

Hi, Laura and KaDeena. I am checking in once again.

My e-mail records show that I have asked seven times for you to explain, according to the state's timeline, how far behind tunneling is for the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project.

Specifically, I asked when the tunnel-boring machine was expected to be at the point it is now (e.g., November 15), and how far along the machine was scheduled to be at this time (e.g. 4,000 feet into its route). I've made similar requests with you by phone.

After you asked me to file a records request for the schedule, which turned up a 476-page technical document [posted here], I asked you to explain the data in it. You said you'd have an answer to my timeline questions by the 28th of January. However, according to the document, it appears the project was 141 days (101 business days) behind schedule as of January 27, and each business day of delay costs $252,424. That would mean the project is now on track to be more than $25 million over budget. The data also suggest the machine was expected to be more than 4,000 feet into its route by now, more than four times the distance it has actually traveled. In an effort to be diligent and give Washington State Department of Transportation a chance to respond, I asked which of these data you agree with and/or disagree with and why?

You claimed those numbers are "inaccurate," yet you have thus far refused to: (1) explain why you believe those estimates for overruns and delays are faulty; (2) provide alternative estimates for schedules, costs, and delays; or (3) produce any records or data that would refute those estimates. Well into February now, each of the timelines you set to answer these questions has passed, and now you have gone silent and stopped replying. I've also asked you to put me in touch with an expert involved who can answer some of the questions, yet you have failed to do that as well.

The Washington State Department of Transportation has established a chronic pattern of avoiding straightforward questions. Unless you answer these questions with an alternative analysis, the public can only assume that the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project is, in fact, now more than four months behind schedule, consuming more than a quarter-million dollars per day of inaction, lacking a timeline to resume tunneling, and that the contingency fund for overruns is effectively vanishing. Thus, it appears that the project already is effectively over-budget and behind schedule.

If there is some other way to request this information so as to provide a different account of the situation, please let me know as soon as possible, or we will have to assume these data on delays and costs and analyses are accurate.

Thank you.

Dominic Holden
News Editor, The Stranger

Maybe they'll get back to me. If folks have ideas for extracting information from the state, I'm all ears. But I think the state—tasked with overseeing a $4.2 billion project that they promised was all hunky-dory—has an obligation to be forthright with the public. We're paying for this sucker, and more oversight, more transparency, more accountability we've got, the better chances this project will turn out all right.

UPDATE: The state has e-mailed to ask if there's a time someone can call me to discuss these questions—which, after two week of ignoring the questions, is the least they can do. But it's a baby step in a step in the right direction.