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Seattle's Bertha Tunnel Project Plagued By Financial Woes


And now some news from underground. Underneath downtown Seattle, the world's largest tunneling machine is still working. It is digging a double-decker underground highway. And the fact that it is still working is cause for celebration for Washington state officials. Up until now, let's say this project has not always gone as planned. Here to talk about this is NPR's Martin Kaste. He is in Seattle. Hello there.


MCEVERS: All right, where are you calling us from?

KASTE: I am talking to you from underneath the Alaskan Way Viaduct. For people who've been to Seattle, you may remember this elevated highway that runs along the waterfront of downtown Seattle. It's kind of like the old Embarcadero in San Francisco. It's been here for decades. And about 15 years ago, there was an earthquake here, and people realized that this thing was not safe anymore, that the next time there's a jolt it could all come tumbling down. So for years, the city tried to figure out what to do about it, whether to replace it. They finally came up with this very controversial plan to do a tunnel underneath downtown Seattle, get rid of the elevated highway. And that's where we stand right now. The elevated highway is still in use. Everyone's hoping there won't be a jolt while it's still in use. And meanwhile, under my feet, the tunneling machine is boring away, creating the replacement tunnel for a highway that'll eventually take the traffic that's above my head.

MCEVERS: So it's working now, but it hasn't been going so great the whole time. Tell us about that.

KASTE: Yeah, it didn't go well starting December of 2013, when things got real hot in the bearings and they had to stop it. They realized that, basically, the thing needed a giant valve job, that the seals had gone. And the whole thing ground to a halt, and it was a massive repair job. Because it was already underground, you can't just back these things out of the tunnel. They had to dig an 11-story deep vault around it. They lifted this 4-million-pound cutting head out of the ground and redid the valves. It took months, and now it looks like it took $200 million at least - extra overruns here. But the thing was put back together. It's continuing to churn away. And so far, it's working all right.

MCEVERS: All right, so that's the end of the story. Everybody's happy, right?

KASTE: Yeah, except someone's got to pay the bill for that overrun. That was one expensive repair job. And so now you've got insurers, contractors, state and the company in Japan that manufactured the tunneling machine all at loggerheads over here over who caused all this, who's fault was all this. And the big discussion is about an eight-inch steel pipe that the machine hit shortly before it ground to a halt. The contractors say the state forgot to tell the contractors about this pipe, that the pipe somehow gummed up the works. The state isn't convinced. They say that's ridiculous. This is a five-story, six-story high machine. How could it get gummed up by an eight-inch pipe? So it's going to be legal wrangling for probably years to come. After this tunnel is open and running, I bet they'll still be in court.

MCEVERS: What are people saying about the delay in this project?

KASTE: Well, a lot of I-told-you-so's because people said this thing - it was going to run over budget and there would be problems. But the delay also has opened up the chance here for some people who want to actually preserve a piece of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, this elevated highway. They say a part of it should turn into an elevated park because it does have beautiful views of the mountains here, so sort of like the High Line in New York. That's now on the ballot next month.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Martin Kaste near an underground tunnel that's being dug underneath Seattle. Thank you very much.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.