Something sure seems broken with the Bertha megaproject. Something more than the tunneling machine itself.
When the world’s largest drill was brought to a halt last month by what they said was an unidentified buried object, state officials soothed that these things happen in tunneling.
“Seeing some reports that I’m stuck,” Bertha herself tweeted on Dec. 9. “I’m working fine, but have encountered an obstruction. I’ll keep you posted.”
Bertha’s tweets are intended to humanize this $3 billion highway project, but they are the work of the state Department of Transportation’s PR department. So the tweets are a version of the official line. Cuteness aside, they are supposed to have a side benefit of telling the public what’s actually going on.
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So compare that “I’m working fine” to what the project’s public manager, Todd Trepanier, finally told a freaked-out state Senate committee about the actual state of Bertha on Thursday.
“If it was your car, and all your warning lights were on and you still needed to make a trip, would it be wise to make that trip? We’re saying no. We’re saying you’ve got to figure out why the warning lights are all on.”
Wait — what? All the warning lights? She was supposed to be blocked by something. Now she sounds like my 31-year-old Volvo.
On top of that, the Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson said last week that the state has had serious doubts about the drill’s “operations and critical systems” since the first day it started mining — in July.
Which means that happy talk all fall was just spin. How perfect: We’ve been spun by a drill.
Now part of this sudden change in tone is that the government and its private contractors are jockeying to sue one another over delays and potential cost overruns. It’s early in the game to be playing to the lawyers, as the tunnel is only about 10 percent drilled.
It’s also no surprise Bertha ran into some trouble. That’s expected when you’re remodeling your kitchen, let alone boring the widest diameter tunnel ever attempted.
But the unsettling feeling around town isn’t just that there might be some major engineering problem with the tunnel or with Bertha. It’s that the story keeps changing so much that the state has drilled a hole in its credibility.
Why say Bertha is fine and then imply she’s not — and that you suspected she wasn’t all along? Why say you don’t know what the drill may have hit when you knew at a minimum that it hit a steel pipe? These obfuscations are maddening because there’s no apparent purpose for them.
Five years ago I wrote that the tunnel project was born in a deception of sorts: the categorical guarantee by the transportation secretary at the time and other public officials that, “There won’t be any cost overruns.”
This unknowable promise may have been “delusional optimism” — when you want it so badly you can’t see its flaws. Or, more likely, it was what a professor at Oxford who studies the psychology of megaprojects, Bent Flyvbjerg, calls “strategic misrepresentation.” That is, spinning to grease the politics of the project (which worked).
What’s going on now, though, won’t work. It will only make it less likely voters trust the state going ahead. Such as when they ask for a gas-tax increase to do other highway megaprojects.
Is Bertha really broken? Just tell us. We can handle it. We all knew this tunnel was likely to bust the budget anyway. So lay it out straight.
“Less cutesy PR and more project management please,” someone tweeted at Bertha the other day.
Exactly. Broken trust is much harder to fix than a broken machine.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org