Washington state bill would scrap delayed Seattle tunnel project

Reuters News
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Posted: Jan 27, 2015 3:52 PM

By Victoria Cavaliere

SEATTLE (Reuters) - Two Washington state lawmakers have introduced a bill to scrap a $3.1 billion roadway overhaul and expressway tunnel excavation in Seattle, branding the project a failure beset by cost overruns, construction mishaps and delays.

The project to replace an aging waterfront freeway in downtown Seattle has been stalled since December 2013, when the world's largest earth-boring machine, named Bertha, became stuck underground after drilling just 10 percent of a planned tunnel route.

A bill sponsored by two Republican state senators, Doug Erickson and Michael Baumgartner, says the tunnel project is ill-conceived and likely to be plagued by additional construction problems and massive cost overruns.

"This thing puts every project in the state and every transportation dollar in the state at risk, if the costs balloon. And I believe they will," Baumgartner said on Tuesday.

The measure is likely to be opposed by Governor Jay Inslee and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who have supported the project, as well as by various members of the state Legislature, which endorsed the project in 2009.

In recent months, crews have been digging a pit adjacent to the tunnel site to reach and excavate the crippled boring machine. The 2,000-ton drill will then be lifted to the surface for repairs by a massive specially built crane.

The contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners, has pushed back the project's completion date by about 20 months to August 2017. Roughly $2 billion of the tunnel's allotted $3.1 billion budget has already been spent, according to expenditure records.

Critics of the project have begun drawing comparisons to Boston's "Big Dig," the country's costliest highway project, which took nearly a decade longer to complete than originally scheduled and was notorious for cost overruns, design flaws, worker fatalities and other problems.

"We are throwing good money out for bad," Baumgartner said. "Do we want a $2 billion dollar mistake to become a $5 or $6 billion mistake? Because, that's what we are looking at," he said.

Under the bill, remaining funds and the state's focus should be turned to repairing the existing freeway, the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

The Washington State Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the project, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the bill.

(Reporting by Victoria Cavaliere in Seattle; Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Cooney)