Apparently determined to out-boondoggle Portland, Seattle has an ambitious, nearly $4.5 billion project underway: replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct with a big tunnel. Unsurprisingly, they've run into a few issues. Their huge tunnel-boring machine broke before they bored much more than a thousand feet, and has been sitting six stories beneath Pioneer Square ever since, now for about a year.
They plan to dig a big pit so that they can haul out the cutting head and fix the bearing, but in order to do that, they have to "dewater" the area around the machine (which translates into "pump out the groundwater"). That didn't seem like a particularly workable idea, but that's what they went with. Now, another problem has emerged:
The newest crisis related to the project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel widened on Monday, when state officials said 30 buildings in Pioneer Square sank about an inch.
On Friday the Washington State Department of Transportation disclosed the viaduct sank 1.25 inches, likely as a result of pumping out groundwater to build the pit to access and repair the broken tunnel machine Bertha.
But following a meeting with WSDOT, Seattle City Council President Tim Burgess opined:
"There's no turning back at this point. The entire Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project must be completed.”
“The tunnel project is 70 percent completed.”
There's still a mile and a half to go; they've only bored a thousand feet. Tim's math seems a little rusty.
You may be wondering why they're dinking around like this; just back the thing out and fix the borer's bearing, right? Well, the tunnelers can only move forward. And when the blades break or a bearing gives out, you're stuck. So they have a five-story tall boring machine stuck six stories beneath Pioneer Square, and they have to dig down to get to it.
As it stands now, they're about a year behind schedule, but they hope to be able to get to the borer's head in April. But let's say they fix it and get her running again.
It broke after covering a thousand feet; there's another 1.5 miles of stuff to grind through. Is the repair warranty good for 1.5 miles? What happens if it breaks again? It's easy to see how a nearly $4.5 billion project could easily double in cost.
This is par for the course, however, where "public works projects" are concerned:
In a 2002 report in the Journal of the American Planning Association titled "Underestimating Costs in Public Works Projects: Error or Lie?," researchers Bent Flyvbjerg (the guy from Oxford), Mette Skamris Holm, and Søren Buhl discussed how megaprojects are misrepresented. "Cost underestimation cannot be explained by error and seems to be best explained by strategic misrepresentation, i.e., lying." They add: "The use of deception and lying as tactics in power struggles aimed at getting projects started and at making a profit appear to best explain why costs are highly and systematically underestimated in transportation infrastructure projects."
Here in Porkland, we've seen it fairly regularly; the aerial tram quadrupled from its original liars' budget before it was completed, for example. Of course, taxpayers voted against the tunnel project, but Seattle City Council overrode them and decided to build it anyway. In that sense, they're a lot like Tri-Met, here in the Portland area.