The Highway 99 tunnel will be 2 feet wider than expected and could open a year earlier than the state requires, if all goes according to plans in the winning bid chosen Thursday.

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The Highway 99 tunnel will be 2 feet wider than expected and could open a year earlier than the state requires, if all goes according to plans in the winning bid chosen Thursday.

While state leaders including Gov. Chris Gregoire celebrated the news at a live bid opening in downtown Seattle, city leaders were predictably split. City Council President Richard Conlin said the plan is “even better than what we were expecting,” while Mayor Mike McGinn quipped that the winning team will “have enough money to buy WashDOT a pizza.”

The winning team, Seattle Tunnel Partners, intends to use a world record 58-foot-diameter machine to drill through a mix of fill soil, clay, glacial till and boulders, at depths of up to 200 feet from Sodo to South Lake Union.

And it would finish by the end of 2015, or 10 months sooner than the state’s deadline.

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Both bids were just below the state limit of $1.09 billion — after the Department of Transportation (DOT) sweetened the deal this summer by offering the teams $210 million additional pay for inflation and insurance costs, and other incentive bonuses. “They gave away the store, to make sure those bids came in,” McGinn complained.

Tunnel Partners offered a price slightly higher than the runner-up team, Seattle Tunneling Group. But Tunnel Partners prevailed because its plan for schedule and design made the net value to DOT better.

“They beat our schedule by almost an entire calendar year,”said Ron Paananen, administrator for the state DOT tunnel program.

However, that merely moves the state back to its original promise of 2015 — before DOT this spring loosened its deadline to Nov. 1, 2016, based on concerns from tunnel teams. The state offered incentives of up to $25 million if tunnelers could finish sooner.

A larger boring machine allows an 8-foot shoulder in each direction, instead of the 6 feet shown in DOT design concepts, said Jack Frost, executive vice president of Tutor-Perini Corp., one of the partners. The extra 2 feet will offer a safety margin for stalled cars.

David Dye, deputy transportation secretary, called the machine a “Cadillac” model that will cost the builders extra money upfront on high-tech cutting tools, in hopes of drilling faster.

Several details about the winning bidder’s plan won’t be revealed until January, when a contract is signed and DOT pays a $4 million stipend to each team, in effect buying their intellectual property.

Thursday’s live bid opening, unprecedented in this state, was held at Union Station in Seattle. The packed board room included construction workers in orange vests and hard hats, who applauded, and at one point, let out a military-style whoop.

Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond emphasized that both teams earned design points surpassing DOT expectations.

“Competition is what makes us great, and this was a very, very competitive selection process,” said Gregoire.

Bidders were required to show what methods they’d use to prevent soil disruptions that could damage downtown buildings, while the machine digs and vibrates at depths as low as 200 feet.

Paananen said the winning team offered advanced technology for measuring the rate of soil removal — if too much dirt is removed, that creates voids and the potential for the ground or buildings to sink. Sound Transit’s Beacon Hill project caused several gaps that were discovered months later and nearly swallowed a house.

Seattle Tunnel Partners also won points for promising a narrower south portal than expected, by double-decking some of the roadway there, said Paananen.

Conlin said it’s astonishing the winning team offered so many features.

But Councilman Mike O’Brien said the numbers make him queasy.

“For the city’s sake, I was hoping that we’d see bids a couple hundred million under budget, seeing as the state gave away a couple hundred million in contingencies a few months ago,” he said. “… that doesn’t leave us much protection going forward.”

Seattle-area firms Frank Coluccio Construction and Mowat Construction are members of the winning team, along with Dragados-USA, from New York; HNTB, which has a Bellevue office; and Tutor-Perini, of Sylmar, Calif. Dragados was a prime contractor on a 50-foot-wide highway tunnel finished in Madrid, Spain, in 2008.

Earlier, state tunnel managers predicted bidders would need a 55- to 56-foot machine worth $80 million — and even at that size, the project was “beyond precedent” and therefore financially risky, according to Thom Neff, a veteran project leader who reviewed the contract provisions this summer for McGinn, a tunnel critic.

The full tunnel budget, including design and overhead, is $2 billion, and the entire Highway 99 corridor cost is $3.1 billion, counting ramps and interchanges at each end.

Four teams originally qualified to bid, but two dropped out, leaving two teams that delivered boxes of plans Oct. 29 in Olympia.

The runner-up Seattle Tunneling Group is made up of: S.A. Healy Co., from Lombard, Ill.; Spain’s FCC Construction; S.A. Parsons Transportation Group, which has a Seattle office; and Halcrow, which has an office in Vancouver, B.C.

Meanwhile, a new anti-tunnel initiative was filed Thursday by a coalition including the Sierra Club, in hopes the City Council will avoid signing land-use and utility deals with state DOT’s tunneling group, unless state lawmakers agree to protect city taxpayers from cost overruns.

Another campaign, Initiative 101, aimed at the May ballot, has already gathered 16,000 signatures, with a goal of 25,000 names, its boosters say. I-101 leaders favor a new elevated highway or retrofitting the existing Alaskan Way Viaduct.

The 1953 viaduct was weakened in the 2001 Nisqually quake, and the state says it would fail in the event of another strong quake.

In addition, tunnel boosters are eager to put traffic below ground, in hopes of creating a quieter, more pleasant waterfront.

Many opponents argue the money would be better spent on transit and improving Interstate 5, to reduce carbon emissions, instead of a massive highway investment.

Times staff reporters Emily Heffter and Lynn Thompson contributed to this report.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or

The scores
The “best value” team was selected live Thursday by revealing the bid price, then subtracting bonus points (expressed as imaginary dollars) for schedule, road width, design and soil-stability plans.
Team Price bid Bonus points Net score
Seattle Tunnel Partners

(Dragados-USA, HNTB, Tutor-Perini)

$1,089,700,002 $71,577,000 $1,018,123,002
Seattle Tunneling Group

(Parsons, Healy,

FCC Construction)

$1,088,302,002 $38,152,000 $1,050,150,002
Source: WSDOT contracting office
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