The Second Rule

The first rule of digging holes, as most schoolchildren know, is that when things are going badly – as hole-digging sometimes does – to stop digging.

Through no wisdom or planning of its own, the state, in its effort to replace the earthquake-damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct, stopped digging its downtown SR 99 tunnel a year ago. That’s because “Bertha” – the whimsical name given to the unprecedentedly large deep boring machine charged with digging SR 99’s new home – broke down almost immediately when a bearing filled with grit and overheated, leaving Bertha’s cutter incapable of moving dirt. Designers, by all accounts, failed to account for the heat generated by such a massive machine. On December 6, Bertha celebrated its first anniversary of sitting idle somewhere under Pioneer Square, while Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP), the contractor managing the hole-digging, tried to figure out what to do.

STP, however, has not been idle itself. They’ve been busy digging a second hole, a 120-foot vertical shaft meant to come out just ahead of where Bertha is stranded. The idea has been to dig the second hole, have the machine (if it can) punch through a concrete wall into the shaft, and then engineers can finally extract Bertha and try to fix the design flaws. Then – maybe – STP can start digging the tunnel again.

Except that now STP has stopped digging the second hole, too. On December 5 the state announced that the soil underneath the Alaskan Way Viaduct had subsided by 1.2 inches. That will happen when you’ve got a massive hole underneath the viaduct, filling with groundwater and leakage from saturated soil during this fall’s heavy rains. A few days later, the state Department of Transportation also announced that soil under Pioneer Square had subsided an inch – again, due to groundwater being pumped out of the original tunnel and rescue shaft – and that some 30 builings in Pioneer Square would need to be inspected for cracks and other possible damage. (The building housing the offices of Real Change is among those affected.) And this week, a 15-foot crack appearing on King St., not too far from where several buildings had reported new cracks in their structures, lent new concern to the notion that WSDOT might turn all of Pioneer Square into a “cut and cover” operation.

Before it stopped digging last week, STP had excavated 84 of the 120 feet of Bertha’s rescue shaft. Workers are still pumping about 600 gallons of groundwater a minute out of the water table, so that the full 120 feet can be dug. Removing all that groundwater, which STP has now resumed doing, seems like an invitation for soil to settle further, but nobody seems to be talking about that.

Nobody, in fact, is talking much about what a fiasco the whole project has become. Some $1 billion of the original $1.44 billion STP was to be paid for digging the deep bore tunnel has already been paid out. With 70 percent of the money already spent, engineers are still struggling with how to fix the effort to fix a machine that may or may not even be capable of doing the job. The state is still insisting that the new SR 99 will be open for traffic in less than two years (already delayed from the original 2015 completion date). All things considered, that seems preposterously optimistic.

Meanwhile, remember those cost overruns that former mayor Mike McGinn was pilloried for worrying about city taxpayers having to pay for? The state senate in Olympia is now firmly controilled by the Republican Party, who just elected as their new Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville. Schoesler has had a relatively undistinguished record when it comes to Olympia issues not involving farm subsidies – except for his outspoken insistence on making Seattle pay for cost overruns. That’s been one of the sticking points in the senate’s failure, for two years in a row, to pass a state transportation budget. Suddenly, the prospect of Seattle taxpayers getting stuck with insane cost overruns for a real-estate development project turned white elephant seems all too plausible. And all of these problems – the unproven tunnel technology, the groundwater dangers, the prospect of severe cost overruns and delays – were foreseen by tunnel critics well before the project’s approval was rammed through by local and state leaders.

Oh, also – it’s now been nearly 14 years since the original Nisqually earthquake that damaged the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The soil underneath the viaduct is settling, and the viaduct itself is leaning ever-so-slightly toward Elliott Bay. With or without another earthquake, the viaduct is in no danger of collapsing. It’ll tip over first. Before that happens – or, more likely, before inspectors decide the viaduct is unsafe for traffic – the state had better figure out how it’s going to handle all the traffic that there won’t be a tunnel to accommodate. Because if the first rule of hole-digging is to stop digging, the second rule is to do something, anything else instead.

More likely, the state will plod ahead, pissing away billions while they pump all the groundwater out from under Pioneer Square. Maybe we’ll wind up with an at-grade replacement for the viaduct after all…only it’ll cost several billion dollars more than anyone expected, not including the bridge over the new Pioneer Square sinkhole, for us to get it.

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