Bertha delayed again; won’t restart drilling until late December

Updated Nov 19, 2015
Crews put the final touches on piecing Bertha’s front end back together after extensive repairs to the machine.Crews put the final touches on piecing Bertha’s front end back together after extensive repairs to the machine.

The Seattle Tunnel Partners have once again delayed the restart of drilling for the State Route 99 tunnel, with Bertha not expected to start work again until Dec. 23.

The Washington State Department of Transportation announced the revised schedule Thursday and said the tunnel most likely would not open until April 2018. That puts the project two years and four months past the original planned opening of December 2015.

Just last week, the STP announced that they were preparing the soil to tunnel again, but the scheduled open air testing still hadn’t started.

State lawmakers and STP project manager Chris Dixon have met to discuss the revised schedule with the Washington Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee. Despite the delay on the $1.3 billion project, the Seattle Times reported state officials didn’t show any frustration during the meeting. Most simply expressed a desire to get the project done.

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“We are quite a ways down the road here,” Sen. Curtis King (R-Yakima) said. “From my standpoint, they have shown they can drill the hole, and do what they want to do. Am I happy that we’re two years late, am I content that we are two years late? No, I’m not. But we are.”

However, lawmakers were concerned about the additional costs on the tax payers. The STP contractors have already been paid $1 billion, but just 11 percent of the tunneling is complete. But the WSDOT Highway 99 administrator, Todd Trepanier, said that most of costs went into the nearly complete north and south portals, the arc-shaped concrete tunnel walls, and the Sodo-area road decks. 

“We only pay STP for work they’ve completed,” Trepanier said. â€śâ€¦ Even though the tunnel is stopped, they only have $300 million worth of work yet to do.”

Big Bertha took a hit earlier this year and set back construction on the tunnel when crews discovered what they previously thought was minor damage was much worse than anticipated. STP found in May the steel casing around the machine’s cutterhead seals broke apart and sent fragments into the drive gears. It took 86 tons of reinforcing plates to get Bertha ready to bore again. Bertha’s huge cutter head was put back into the ground after repairs back in August in preparation for the drilling to resume.

Dixon told lawmakers the delay was mostly due to the difficulty in maintaining the right space between the rotating parts.

“The movement of these gaps has been a real critical activity,” he said. “We’ve welded it in other places, and switched jacks around, to monitor these gaps.”

At about the same time that Bertha’s head was being put back into the ground in August, the insurance companies filed a lawsuit to get out of the $143 million price tag. Eight insurers filed lawsuits that claimed the boring machine was “under dimensioned” to carve out the tunnel. The suit also said that Hitachi Zosen experienced seal problems when Bertha was commissioned.