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Like the world’s largest tunnel-boring machine, which ground to a halt under downtown Seattle more than a year ago, the region’s elected officials are stuck.

Most of them backed the plan for the multibillion-dollar Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel, and all of them know that every day the fragile viaduct remains standing is another that an earthquake could knock it down — with deadly results.

Many of them will campaign for re-election before the project is done; the best-case scenario for completion is August 2017, a year and a half behind schedule.

There is no cheap and easy alternative to the state-run tunnel project and also no guarantee that the $80 million machine nicknamed Bertha will start moving again.

The project will remain in limbo until crews digging a repair-access pit reach the machine, and its boondoggle potential has recently attracted national media attention.

Knee-deep in political muck, some local leaders are looking for a way out, others are standing firm, and still others are ducking questions about the problem.

Gov. Jay Inslee and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray are walking a fine line between supporting an important undertaking and distancing themselves from blame in case it implodes. Murray, in particular, has been reluctant to discuss the future of the project in detail.

“I’m not sure anyone wants to talk about this, because it’s a nightmare. There’s no happy ending,” Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata said.

Talk of a Plan B

Licata voted to go forward with agreements for a deep-bore tunnel in 2011 after previously favoring a new viaduct. Now he’s worried.

Whether or not Bertha resumes her work, the solution to Seattle’s waterfront transportation quagmire will likely generate significant cost overruns, he said.

Rather than waiting to see whether the machine can be rescued and repaired, Murray, Inslee and select city and state lawmakers should begin meeting to shore up the current project and develop a robust Plan B, Licata said.

“They need to outline the options,” he said, suggesting that Inslee lead the way. “What are the costs? How valid is the information we have right now? What’s going on? They should be able to explain to the public what the best Plan B is.”

Inslee and Murray are choosing their words carefully.

“People should be prepared for additional challenges, but we have looked at other alternatives and this remains the best viable option,” the governor said in a statement.

He and everyone else will know more after the project’s contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners, completes the repair-access pit.

“New information could change plans on any project,” Inslee admitted. “But it doesn’t change the need to make sure we build a safe new route through Seattle or our intention to keep the contractor accountable for delivering on their contract.”

Murray held an emergency news conference last month after sinking soil and a hole in the pavement near Bertha’s repair-access pit in Pioneer Square caused concern.

But his focus was on protecting utilities and nearby buildings — issues for which the city is directly responsible — not on the future of the actual tunnel project. The mayor declined a request by The Seattle Times for an interview about the tunnel project.

He did discuss the project briefly during year-end segments on KING-TV and KIRO-TV, describing the deep-bore tunnel as “still the best option.”

“We want to keep our industrial sector. To make that work, you need to be able to move freight and people,” the mayor told KING.

But he also pointed a finger at the state and the project’s contractor.

“What concerns me is: Did the state buy the right technology? Was this the best method to build a tunnel?” Murray said. “I’m very concerned how this is playing out. Perhaps the choices of how we went about this may have been the wrong choices.”

The mayor argued that not completing Bertha’s tunnel could make the construction of a new downtown transit tunnel for a Ballard-West Seattle light-rail line a harder sell.

But on KIRO, he appeared to open the door — at least a crack — to a Plan B.

“Whether it’s a tunnel, or whether it’s some other type of tunnel or some other type of arrangement that we come up with for the central waterfront, the important thing is we find a way to make this corridor work,” Murray said.

When to cut losses?

There are two Plan B possibilities, Licata said: A highway that would play havoc with the city’s plans for a new waterfront park, or a surface street with a huge investment in transit. Both possibilities could cost billions of dollars more than currently allocated, he said.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) already has spent more than $1 billion toward its $1.44 billion contract with Seattle Tunnel Partners. Bertha has traveled only 1,025 feet along its 9,270-foot route.

When asked at what point WSDOT should scrap the tunnel project, Licata replied, “It might be now.”

Councilmember Mike O’Brien, though he was the only member to vote against the project in 2011, answered, “I don’t have enough information to answer that.”

O’Brien has questioned WSDOT several times about the tipping point for the viaduct becoming too dangerous, but has yet to receive a satisfying explanation, he said.

The viaduct is safe to drive on today, Inslee said in his statement. But it is rated a 9 in structural integrity on a scale of 1 to 100 and would have collapsed had the Nisqually earthquake of 2001 lasted just 10 more seconds, he noted.

That said, “Stopping this project now won’t make the viaduct any safer, or make our commutes any faster,” Inslee added.

Before proponents of the tunnel won out, O’Brien lobbied for a surface street with additional transit, and he believes he may get his way in the end.

“If we get to a point where this project drags on and the viaduct becomes too risky, then we may get to try that plan, at least on a temporary basis,” he said.

At a minimum, leaders should keep their minds open, said O’Brien.

“This doesn’t have to be, ‘I will do everything to keep Bertha alive’ or “It’s time to kill Bertha.’ It can be, ‘I’m going to share information and make hard decisions,’ ” he said.

Supporters stand firm

Council President Tim Burgess is among those urging the state to stay the course.

“We knew this would be complicated,” he said. “But this project is essential to our transportation needs. If we rethink it every time there’s a hiccup, we’ll be in far worse trouble than if we just move ahead wisely and prudently and finish the project.”

Councilmember Jean Godden, a longtime tunnel supporter like Burgess, agreed.

“We have to think positively,” Godden said. “I don’t know that everything will be fine, but I’m hoping that everything will be fine.”

Naysayers need to take a deep, calming breath, she said. Boston’s Big Dig project survived problems much worse than what Bertha has encountered thus far, and “the people of Boston would not for a minute give back their tunnel,” she said.

There is a default Plan B for replacing the viaduct, Burgess said: a surface-street proposal from 2005, tweaked to account for updated traffic patterns. But that plan is simply not doable, said Burgess. “We’ve gone way too far in the other direction,” he said.

Burgess, Godden and Licata each lobbied for the tunnel and pushed legislation through the council to facilitate it. But they are now emphasizing that the state — not the city — is ultimately responsible for the project and its complications.

Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, the council’s Transportation Committee chair, could not be reached for comment.

Fallout in Olympia?

State lawmakers are certainly watching the project.

The tunnel kerfuffle will affect how voters view infrastructure spending and may prove a drag on efforts to pass a transportation package in Olympia this year, said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, who chairs the House Transportation Committee.

Nonetheless, Clibborn is generally supportive of the tunnel, as is Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee. “Going into a project of this size and complexity, you knew there would be setbacks,” Clibborn said.

The question of cost overruns is less clear.

When the Legislature approved the tunnel project in 2009, lawmakers included a proviso requiring city taxpayers to cover any costs above the state’s budget.

But Clibborn maintains that the proviso is unenforceable because the tunnel is a state project, and King agrees the proviso may not “hold water in court.”

“There’s no legal way for (WSDOT) or the state to come down to a jurisdiction and have them be held responsible for the contract,” Clibborn said.

The governor shares that opinion. In 2010, then-state Attorney General Rob McKenna advised then-Gov. Chris Gregoire that further legislation would be required to make the proviso operative, Inslee said.

Inslee and Murray, who as a state senator sponsored the tunnel legislation and voted for it despite concerns about the proviso, are mostly on the same page.

Both leaders are standing by the project while insisting that Seattle Tunnel Partners is responsible for overruns because it has a “design-build” contract with the state.

“We have seen no evidence that costs related to the machine repairs will be borne by the state or taxpayers,” Inslee said.

Time will tell whether the governor is correct. The companies that make up Seattle Tunnel Partners have years of experience litigating cost questions, and as of last spring they already had filed claims with the state for an additional $190 million.

Evaluating Bertha’s muck, Inslee addressed the project’s detractors this way: “A decision was made. Right now we need a safe new arterial through Seattle more than we need a historical debate.”

Daniel Beekman: 206-464-2164 or dbeekman@seattletimes.com