Even in tunnel-boring machine Bertha’s darkest days, manufacturer Hitachi Zosen did not consider quitting, says the Japanese manufacturer’s U.S. president.

Share story

Even in tunnel boring machine Bertha’s darkest days, manufacturer Hitachi Zosen never for a moment considered quitting, says Takashi Hayato, the Japanese manufacturer’s U.S. president.

Hitachi Zosen disputes a storyline offered by Gov. Jay Inslee, who on Tuesday credited the state for pushing the contractors to finish the 1.7-mile dig from Sodo to South Lake Union.

After 11 months of steady digging, which followed two years of delays, the boring machine crossed the finish line in a cloud of dust midday Tuesday, cheered by workers and government leaders while thousands of citizens watched online.

Inslee, on hand for the event, praised the accomplishment and the labor unions involved before taking reporters’ questions, when he said in part:

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., NHL Seattle, PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company and Seattle Children’s hospital. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

Learn more about Traffic Lab » | Follow us on Twitter »

“Look, when there were frustrations on this job, the state decided to be persistent and keep the job going ahead. When there were problems on this job we were insistent that the contractor finish this job and fulfill its obligation to the people of the state of Washington.”

Hitachi Zosen, collaborating with Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP) lead contractors Tutor-Perini and Dragados USA, began to engineer its repair plan within weeks after Bertha overheated and stalled Dec. 6, 2013.

“We never abandoned the commitment to doing the project, (and) to STP,” Hayato said in an interview with The Seattle Times. “The commitment is doing the job for the public. The company’s motto is to contribute to society through project engineering.”

Bertha breaks through

The company says it spent $80 million of its own money to fix Bertha when it overheated and stalled, after sand penetrated the bearing seals in late 2013. That’s the same as the cost to build the machine.

Hitachi Zosen might get repaid for the repairs, or it might not. That dispute could take years to resolve.

Interviews and documents have consistently shown the team set to work voluntarily, mindful that megaprojects don’t get cheaper by dawdling.

Chris Dixon, the Tutor-Perini executive managing the tunnel, initially hoped for a quick six-month repair operation, to resume digging by October 2014.

When the repair phase dragged on 14 months longer, the contractors didn’t hint at walking off.

STP continued to build ramps and tunnel decks northward — and was paid monthly by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) for the work it performed.

“Quitting isn’t part of our vocabulary,” Dixon said then.

Hitachi Zosen has built more than 1,200 boring machines for worldwide clients.

Its team reports to STP and never had direct contact with the state, Hayato said. A state-sponsored expert team did critique aspects of digging performance at various times, to inform WSDOT.

Hayato traveled here from New York to witness the breakthrough Tuesday, taking cellphone video from the west side of Bertha’s disassembly vault.

“I am very satisfied to see that,” he said.

In his remarks, the governor credited the state with demanding what he called a “new machine” to finish the job.

“When I saw this machine start, it was Bertha 1,” Inslee said. “When the machine showed itself incapable of doing the job, we insisted that the contractor give us Bertha 2, and they put in 86 new tons of steel, a whole new redesigned bearing system, and a new electronics system.”

Hayato said the Bertha that found daylight Tuesday is the same machine, with the same diameter and thrust forces. The damaged bearing was replaced with an identical twin shipped from Japan, and the 86 tons were added because a new seal enclosure was several inches wider than the old seal ring, he said. Electronic changes were minimal, except a few monitoring devices upfront, he said.

WSDOT officially says the drill was “repaired, strengthened, reassembled and then tested,” in a financial disclosure to the federal government.

Hitachi Zosen disputes the term “strengthened.”

The “new” versus “old” Bertha argument offers a preview of coming court disputes over who pays $480 million in delay and repair costs. A German engineering consultant for insurance companies, which seek to avoid paying, found the original Bertha was “underdimensioned” to dig through heavy water-laden soils, a court filing says.

Relations between Inslee and tunnel builders reached a low point in January 2016, when a sinkhole that opened near the waterfront prompted Inslee and WSDOT to suspend drilling, until STP issued a new quality-control plan.

Dixon called the suspension “wrongful and unjustified,” but didn’t hint at slowing down.

Transportation Secretary Roger Millar recalled a meeting in February 2016 with STP’s corporate executives soon after Inslee ordered the work stoppage.

“We agreed that it was in everybody’s best interest to complete the project,” Millar said.

At the corporate level, Tutor-Perini CEO Ron Tutor, legendary for pursuing claims, has mentioned a need to demand payment before doing certain East Coast work where cash wasn’t forthcoming. But in the case of Highway 99, his remarks are consistently about finishing the tunnel. Tutor-Perini’s latest fiscal report does predict a sizable cash recovery, down the road.