Editorial: WSDOT needs to work on communication skills in Highway 99 tunnel mess
Restoring public confidence in the State Highway 99 tunnel project requires more transparency from the state Department of Transportation.
Seattle Times Editorial
BERTHA has been parked for a year on the Seattle waterfront like a broken-down car. And now it’s bringing down the neighborhood. Literally.
The mechanical troubles of the world’s largest tunnel-boring machine were compounded this week by news that a mega-complicated fix — including pumping groundwater to help dig a 120-foot pit in front of the stuck Bertha — may be destabilizing the ground under the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Pioneer Square.
“A whole block just went down an inch,” explained Todd Trepanier, project manager on the Highway 99 replacement project.
Just as worrisome is the lack of clarity about what comes next — for the state, the tunnel contractors, for the city and for drivers dependent on Highway 99.
The Washington State Department of Transportation didn’t help much in a Monday briefing to the Seattle City Council. The briefing started with an apology for WSDOT’s failure to alert the council before sending out a news release about sagging in the viaduct and surrounding buildings due to the groundwater pumping.
The lack of advance notice was particularly jarring because the agency had sent over a presentation to the council just last week, without hinting at early indications that the viaduct had sunk.
That lack of transparency recalled episodes last year after Bertha was initially shut down. WSDOT did not mention, for four weeks, the potential that Bertha had hit a pipe. Turns out, it did, and has barely budged since.
How viable now is the plan to get her restarted? What are the other options, if the 120-foot pit cannot be dug without destabilizing the viaduct? At what point does the viaduct become unusable? What is the state’s financial exposure in this tunnel contract?
Answers, as clear as possible, must come from the state. Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson did not attend Monday’s City Council briefing. WSDOT officials are scheduled to reappear before the council next Monday, and it would be helpful for the council, and the public, to hear from Peterson.
The lack of a clear path forward is emboldening the doomsday prognosticators demanding that the plug be pulled on the tunnel. With $1 billion of the $1.44 billion contract already spent, that would be grievous mistake. For better or worse, Bertha is everyone’s problem.
At some point, the family of Bertha Knight Landes, Seattle’s first female mayor, may have to ask for her name back. That day isn’t here. But WSDOT needs to work on its communication skills as the agency’s engineers put their skills to work.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, Blanca Torres, Robert J. Vickers, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).
Information in this editorial, originally published Dec. 9, 2014, was clarified Dec. 10, 2014. A previous version stated that WSDOT had briefed the City Council last week, without hinting at early indications that the viaduct had sunk. In fact, WSDOT had sent over a presentation to the council that didn’t hint at the early indications that the viaduct had sunk.