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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Why Won't the State Tell Us How Far Behind the Tunnel Is?

Posted by on Tue, Feb 11, 2014 at 4:30 PM

Bertha, girl, why dont you come around here anymore?
  • 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.


Comments (42) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
Dominic, while you are at it, you should ask them if they have ever been caught beating their wives, or masturbating in a closet. The only proper answer to that question is "I don't understand the question". But it is a conspiracy proven if they continue to refuse to reveal the conspiracy.
Posted by hmmmmm on February 11, 2014 at 4:52 PM · Report this
Dominic Holden 2
@1) Nice try, but there's no question that the tunnel is running behind schedule. The issue is how far behind schedule, and that's a question they should answer in good faith.
Posted by Dominic Holden on February 11, 2014 at 4:59 PM · Report this
It will be 8-10 months behind, if history is any indication.
Posted by drshort on February 11, 2014 at 5:09 PM · Report this
Max Solomon 4
"we don't know with accuracy yet. we're trying to determine that information, and will release that information as soon as we are confident in the answer".

or, you could take the day it broke and count how long ago that was. let's say it was 60 days ago. then they're 60 days behind.

how far behind they will be when they start back up? how would they know at this point when they don't even know which method they'll use to fix it yet?
Posted by Max Solomon on February 11, 2014 at 5:10 PM · Report this
Dom, you're definitely being a dick, but that's your job. Besides, it seems you already know more than whatever they're going to tell you at a PC. Keep hammering. I'd like to know more about the likelihood of the contractor defaulting and the fall back scenario if it does just get stuck in the dirt.
Posted by Thunderbird on February 11, 2014 at 5:10 PM · Report this
fletc3her 6
I'm no fan of access journalism, but I do think there is a line that can be walked between being fawning and a total and complete dick.
Posted by fletc3her on February 11, 2014 at 5:12 PM · Report this
Sargon Bighorn 7
About now my PeachVodka Martini is kicking in and I'm not too terribly concerned about some drilling machine. Keep biting at their heels Mr Holden.
Posted by Sargon Bighorn on February 11, 2014 at 5:13 PM · Report this
seatackled 8
Could we call the tunnel boring machine by its real name--Christine?
Posted by seatackled on February 11, 2014 at 5:13 PM · Report this
fletc3her 9
I'd say we're a year back at this point. If everything goes swimmingly we're looking at a summer restart. Maybe they can pick up some time by letting some parts of the project move forward, but probably not much given that they can't really start rerouting roads and things until the tunnel is ready.

Posted by fletc3her on February 11, 2014 at 5:18 PM · Report this
seatackled 10
Dom's update after the jump says the state has asked for a time to call him to "discuss" his questions.
Posted by seatackled on February 11, 2014 at 5:23 PM · Report this
Supreme Ruler Of The Universe 11
Imagine if we had taken all this money, and build out low cost LINK elevated lines to all reaches of King County and Puget Sound.

Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe on February 11, 2014 at 5:32 PM · Report this
Where's the accountability?!?! Yes, I know the end-game of politics is to skirt it and pin it on others. But, we need more dicks or they will just continue to roll over the complacent and ignorant.
Posted by BoulderDrop on February 11, 2014 at 5:33 PM · Report this
Supreme Ruler Of The Universe 13
476-page technical document [posted here],

That page doesn't exist.
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe on February 11, 2014 at 5:41 PM · Report this
I recall an article on the distance dug and the warranty on the machine. If it was actually broken when they said it wasn't, shouldn't this have been a contuining part of the conversation? It seems interesting that there's been nothing else said about it.

Also, why does each day cost so much?

Thanks for covering this!
Posted by notpayingattention on February 11, 2014 at 5:44 PM · Report this
Dominic Holden 15
@13) Whoops. The link should be fixed now.
Posted by Dominic Holden on February 11, 2014 at 5:47 PM · Report this
TomJohnsonJr 16
Keep at 'em!
Posted by TomJohnsonJr on February 11, 2014 at 6:04 PM · Report this
tainte 17
are you seriously that dense? why won't they tell you?

because the answer is BAD NEWS.
Posted by tainte on February 11, 2014 at 6:07 PM · Report this
Supreme Ruler Of The Universe 18

So reading this doc, I focus in on

TC-04: Bored Tunnel

(This document seems like it is from the days when they were still considering all the options.)

The left is a Gantt chart. I don't see the legend, but I guess that blue is completed. Green is to be done, as is red, but red is critical path (these are the tasks that must be done for completion to occur).

I then jump to page 16. BT (Build Tunnel?) and these two items:

BT - Set up TBM $10,296,479.13 15 2 01-Jan-13 A 19-Jul-13

BT - TBM Mining $82,759,052.34 330 -20 22-Jul-13 24-Oct-14

So that's setting up Bertha and then digging the tunnel.

The seem to have allotted themselves until Oct-14.
Posted by Supreme Ruler Of The Universe on February 11, 2014 at 6:08 PM · Report this
Pol Pot 19
@1,3,5,6- why do you hate journalism?
Posted by Pol Pot on February 11, 2014 at 6:54 PM · Report this
Dr. Z 20
Dominic - you continue to do a great job at investigative journalism, which at this time is practically a lost art.

Bertha reminds me of Jumbo, an expensive relic of the Trinity atom bomb test:

"General Groves had ordered the construction of a 214-short-ton (194 t) steel canister code-named "Jumbo" to recover valuable plutonium if the 5 short tons (4.5 t) of conventional explosives failed to compress it into a chain reaction. The container was constructed at great expense in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and brought to the test site by rail, but by the time it arrived, the confidence of the scientists was high enough that they decided not to use it. Instead, it was hoisted up in a steel tower 800 yards (730 m) from the gadget as[vague] a rough measure of how powerful the explosion would be. In the end Jumbo survived, although its tower did not."

In fact, the government went to great lengths to hide how much money had been wasted on Jumbo, going so far as to attempt to vaporize it in the Trinity test. Jumbo survives to this day, rusting beside the Trinity monument.

Posted by Dr. Z on February 11, 2014 at 7:26 PM · Report this
FlabioG 21
What I have focused on is that the City of Seattle owns Bertha after 1000 feet of digging. Now they have run it to 1090 feet and burnt out all the main seal. Tell me they didn't just drive it till it was Seattle's no matter what happened.
Posted by FlabioG on February 11, 2014 at 7:59 PM · Report this
Reverse Polarity 22
You can argue that Dom is being a dick, but somebody needs to be asking these questions. We were sold this project on the promise that the state knew what it was getting into, and that nothing could go wrong and it couldn't go over budget, a la Boston's Big Dig. We were super duper promised because if it did, Seattle taxpayers would be on the hook for any cost overruns.

Well... now we are months behind, and we are undoubtedly incurring some unknown/undisclosed cost overruns. The state has an obligation to inform the taxpayers how far behind and how far over-budget this project is, or is expected to be. They may not know exactly when Bertha will be fully operational again or how much the repairs will cost, but presumably some engineers or consultants with the manufacturer must have some sort of estimate, even if it is just an educated guess at this point. If they have absolutely no fucking clue, then they should be telling us that.

WSDOT does not necessarily need to be at Dom's beck and call, but they cannot simply go mute because they don't like his questions. They are answerable to the taxpayers paying for this project, and they need to be more forthcoming.
Posted by Reverse Polarity on February 11, 2014 at 8:01 PM · Report this
I figure someone ought to sue the state to prevent the project restarting until we the people are given a revised budget and statement of where the money's coming from. Oh where are you Mike McGinn ...
Posted by tshicks on February 11, 2014 at 8:09 PM · Report this
theophrastus 24
@21 the City of Seattle will never 'own' any of the tunneling equipment at any point. there is a company named "Seattle Tunneling Partners" (or STP) which does now own the tunneling machine. the City of Seattle is not a financial partner in STP.
Posted by theophrastus on February 11, 2014 at 8:26 PM · Report this
This project isn't behind, it's over with. They will not be able to fix this thing because of a, b, c, d, and on up to z.
Posted by sarah70 on February 11, 2014 at 8:42 PM · Report this
@21, There's still 210 ft of warranty. Although with documented high temp alarms going off a shady car dealer would find wiggle room.…
The $80 million drill, stalled near Pioneer Square, remains under warranty from Hitachi-Zosen until it reaches 1,300 feet.
Posted by ChefJoe on February 11, 2014 at 8:44 PM · Report this
Re: Dominic being a dick

He wouldn't have to be if wsdot did their fucking jobs and weren't *lying* to the public about the tunnel problems.... Seriously, I believe an appropriate question at this point is, who lied and said the machine was fine, and what is the appropriate legal penalty be for lying to the public? It's not like this is a private project for a private landowner. This is public money and false information could sway elections. This carries huge moral hazard and judging from my time working for the state I'm sure there are ample beurocratic regulations that address this...
Posted by Upchuck on February 11, 2014 at 9:26 PM · Report this
Joe Szilagyi 28
Why do agencies always want to go to phone calls instead of answering in writing?
Posted by Joe Szilagyi on February 11, 2014 at 9:56 PM · Report this
seatackled 29

You just answered your own question.
Posted by seatackled on February 11, 2014 at 10:05 PM · Report this
Asking for honest answers about what went wrong, what stopped Bertha, etc., is legit. Hounding them to answer a question for which there is obviously no good answer IS being a dick.
Posted by bigyaz on February 11, 2014 at 10:21 PM · Report this
Hounding them to answer a question for which there is obviously no good answer is NOT being a dick, it's being a reporter. They should produce an answer, good or not, because they're the ones in charge, and they're using PUBLIC MONEY.
Posted by sarah70 on February 11, 2014 at 10:25 PM · Report this
Good job. Keep up the pressure.
Posted by Phil M on February 11, 2014 at 10:35 PM · Report this
Who cares if you're being a dick. It's a legitimate question for a journalist to ask and it's a question that WSDOT should be prepared to answer. Trying to shift the conversation to your style or behavior is a diversion and a distraction.

But, just for the record, I don't think you're being a dick. You're not saying, writing, or doing anything spiteful or personal. You're doing your job and expecting them to do their job. Personality or style isn't an issue here. Anyone who thinks you're being a dick must never have seen real dickish behavior.
Posted by Charlie Mas on February 11, 2014 at 10:48 PM · Report this
Will in Seattle 34
Just because they're illegally lying and covering up the inevitable massive cost overruns that will cause all Eastern Washington roads projects to be cancelled ... doesn't mean they don't have their donors best interests at heart.

Here's mud in yer eye, Bertha!
Posted by Will in Seattle on February 11, 2014 at 11:23 PM · Report this
As far as extracting information from the state, couldn't Slog find some big round untested boring machine and turn it on?
Posted by idaho on February 12, 2014 at 1:32 AM · Report this
NotSean 36
Suggestion: Ask some questions of other cities/states that have used a Hitachi TBM... and how well the company handled machine failures.
Posted by NotSean on February 12, 2014 at 5:55 AM · Report this
@36 Or do a records request to Sound Transit to find out if sand was ever found in the main bearings of the machines they used, and how common high temp issues were during their tunnelling operations. That would provide at least some context for the reaction to the initial stoppage.
Posted by Action Slacks on February 12, 2014 at 6:29 AM · Report this
too bad the state doesn't support rail systems for seattle area. at $4.2 billion we could have like 20 miles of light rail, elevated say from SeaTac to west seattle then through sodo to waterfront to interbay to ballard then to Holman road then to northgate with a spur due north up to center of shoreline. elevated, meaning, "not subject to risks of tunnels." or skytrain. or monorail. or fucking gondolas, they are only $50 million a mile and carry 3500 pphpd. nope, we choose the most expensive, the most concrete oriented, the most carbon emitting thing, the tunnel, and it doesn't even replace the throughput capacity of the old 99 and doesn't even have a fucking bus stop in it downtown underground to be useful for transit. at some basic level, we deserve what we are getting by making the huge investement in auto oriented mobility when clearly the need is for another rail line that creates two huge loops north and south with light rail. multiline regional rail, my god folks, it's only been tried and worked in about 200 cities around the world.
Posted by DBT worst choice on February 12, 2014 at 9:10 AM · Report this
There are two questions that need asking here, and Dom is asking only one of them. 1. What is the situation? WSDOT needs to answer that, and Dom should keep on being adick until they do. 2. What can be done to alter the situation? Dom's not asking that one, but should.

This is the time to begin examing the merits of the decision to enter a design-build contract. It's looking more and more like a good decision in retrospect. The D-B approach is intended, in part, to handle situations like this. To wit, the onus is on the contractor and the equipment supplier to deliver the tools to do the job, and execute the job. If they don't, they are not meeting the terms of the deal. The onus is on the owner to define the job specifically enough for the contractor to do it.

Next, these contracts always include claims & dispute resolution processes, with specific procedures for documenting disputes for reconciliation at the end of the job. Among the purposes of this approach is to make sure work continues even if there are disagreements about fault between the owner and contractor.

Finally, insurance will play a major role here. It's also important to know what insurance provisions might apply; a D-B contractor, in fact any contractor, doesn't get awarded the job unless they are well covered with insurance.

So the schedule is totally shot, yes. But the questions of cost overruns and who pays will largely be informed by how the dispute resolution goes, how fault is allocated, and to what extent coverage kicks in. Dom-- time to start asking these questions.
Posted by gawd on February 12, 2014 at 10:29 AM · Report this
It's already been pointed out that until the machine reaches a certain point (which it may never do), the contractor must pay for overruns, etc.
Posted by sarah70 on February 12, 2014 at 11:46 AM · Report this
I believe the talk of warrantying the machine is a bit of a red herring. The manufacturer may technically be on the hook for the machine but the state is undoubtedly incurring costs related to the work stoppage that Hitachi-Zosen will not cover.

It's like having your car break down on the way to your wedding. Ford will happily replace the water pump that broke, but the $20,000 of venue, catering and photography fees you didn't get the benefit of are your own problem.
Posted by Mr John on February 12, 2014 at 11:55 AM · Report this
The tunnel project holds all media in contempt, not just The Stranger. Talking casually with them, they act like victims who can't understand why reporters are apparently out to get them.

It goes like this. Give us information, good and bad, and we'll report information, good and bad.

Posted by GnusHound on February 13, 2014 at 11:43 AM · Report this

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