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Seattle Tunnel Partners project director Chris Dixon expressed surprise Thursday that after a longtime good-working relationship, the state now blames its contractors for difficulties with the Highway 99 tunnel project.

Criticisms by Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson “have the potential of seriously damaging this relationship and adversely affect WSDOT’s and STP’s ability to move forward together to deliver this project,” said Dixon in a letter to her and shared with state lawmakers.

The rancor comes in an early stage of the drilling work. More commonly, public-works fights come toward a project’s end, when governments and builders joust over claims for extra payment, based on unforeseen changes.

The 57-foot-diameter tunnel drill has been stalled for six weeks, after completing about 1,000 feet of its 1.7-mile trip from Sodo to South Lake Union.

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Peterson — who issued a pair of harsh messages about STP’s performance this week — nonetheless told senators Thursday she is confident the tunnel construction will ultimately succeed.

“There’s no fatal flaw. We’re going to make it through,” she said.

On Monday, she had announced STP was in “breach of contract” for setting barriers to small businesses owned by women and minorities, based on a federal civil-rights investigation last fall. The feds also accused the state Department of Transportation of failing to provide oversight.

Then, in a memo Wednesday to lawmakers, Peterson said, “WSDOT has had concerns about the machine’s operations and critical systems since its launch on July 30, 2013.”

She requested a plan to recover lost time, details about what caused wear to cutting tools, and facts about an episode when the machine ran at high temperatures in early December.

The DOT is also bringing in outside tunnel experts, to help ensure the machine runs properly before it proceeds under the Alaskan Way Viaduct and downtown.

Peterson’s memo also mentioned “potential future litigation” between the state and contracting team.

Dixon’s letter called for a meeting to mend relations. Earlier this week, he said the machine stall is due to external problems, in the soil.

His letter emphasized that STP will meet the minority-hiring goal of 8 percent, or approximately $91 million in subcontracts.

Peterson told the Senate Transportation Committee on Thursday that she didn’t levy fines because STP has recently shown her a plan to reach the minority-contracting goal.

But the local NAACP chapter is calling on the state to kick the contractors off the project.

Workers halted drilling Dec. 6, to avoid damaging tunnel-boring machine Bertha, after the rotary cutters spun without grabbing dirt. Causes are still being investigated.

A possible culprit is a steel pipe that Bertha hit on Dec. 3.

Dixon’s letter says:

“We are surprised that WSDOT appears to be attempting to shift the responsibility for the cost and time impacts associated with the current TBM stoppage to STP, when WSDOT understands that the cause of this stoppage was the encountering of a steel well casing, which was installed and left in place by WSDOT.”

But Todd Trepanier, the DOT’s Highway 99 administrator, told the senators that not only did the state show the well casing in contract documents, but it appears the top of the pipe had been “driven over” earlier in the project.

Friday morning, tunnel workers are expected to enter the machine’s cutting face to conduct inspections, Trepanier said.

International tunneling expert Colin Lawrence of New York, who will serve on the new state tunnel-oversight team, told senators about his background, including work on the Channel Tunnel between England and France.

“I’ve seen projects that have had much bigger problems than what you’re encountering, believe it or not,” Lawrence said. “I’ve also seen projects where they’ve had to change the contractor.”

He urged leaders to rely on facts from upcoming cutter inspections, as opposed to speculation about what’s hindering the machine.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or On Twitter @mikelindblom

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