Steady digging by Bertha has helped the state reduce its worst-case estimate of cost overruns by nearly $80 million, though big risks remain.
OLYMPIA — In a slightly improved outlook for taxpayers, delays on the Highway 99 tunnel are now expected to cost the state about $149 million in overruns, a third less than feared in July.
The main reason is that tunnel-boring machine Bertha has dug consistently since spring, and completed 72 percent of the route from Sodo to South Lake Union, said Joe Hedges, program administrator for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT).
The agency issued new figures Thursday to lawmakers on the Joint Transportation Committee, after telling them in July that the worst-case situation would add $223 million in overruns on the $2.1 billion tunnel, the biggest piece of a $3.1 billion replacement for the old Alaskan Way Viaduct.
“The big thing now is progress,” Hedges said. “As we’re making progress, now you’re out of this standstill, you have the ability to look forward, to look to the light,” he said afterward.
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The state needs extra money to pay for its own staff, engineers, consultants, office rent and related overhead until the job is done. The overrun figure also includes more than $10 million in legal fees to fight off contractor claims against the state, Hedges said after the briefing.
And of this $149 million estimate, some $69 million is considered “risk” that can be reduced if the project avoids further problems. For instance, if Bertha breaks into daylight near Mercer Street in June as now anticipated, the state would dodge $30 million in losses that more delays would create.
The highway tube is three years behind schedule, with the expected opening in spring 2019.
WSDOT Secretary Roger Millar requested $60 million for this overhead in the just-released 2017-2019 state budget, and plans to seek more if needed in the future. He said the money would be drawn from state gas-tax funds.
Besides consistent drilling of about 50 feet per day, the project also has gained by paying out only $177,000 to fix or reinforce buildings damaged by ground sinking around Bertha — far below the $20 million assumed in the contract for urgent tasks such as injecting grout, to buttress a droopy foundation. The contract with Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP) sets limits of either a half-inch or three-quarter inch of movement per building, before emergency work must be done.
“The ground control has been phenomenal,” said Dave Sowers, the state’s deputy administrator. “They’ve done such a great job. We’ve seen no settlement at the surface.”
Under the contract, WSDOT would recover $5 million if Bertha continues to dig without causing sinkholes or voids.
After the four-lane, tolled tunnel opens, the viaduct would be demolished, over nine months. Finally, a surface boulevard would be built along the Central Waterfront, serving some 30,000 vehicles a day that won’t have a way to exit the tunnel in Belltown and Interbay, or that want to reach the state ferry terminal.
The state could be on the hook for much more than the potential $149 million mentioned Thursday.
STP has filed an additional $480 million in claims against the state to pay for contractors’ delay costs and two-year repair effort, beyond the $1.44 billion contract.
The contractors blame the tunnel-boring machine’s Dec. 6, 2013 breakdown, and the need to build a deep repair-access vault, on a groundwater-research pipe the state left in the ground and the machine hit near Pioneer Square.
“WSDOT does not believe that an 8-inch wide steel well-casing caused significant problems for the massive tunneling machine,” spokeswoman Laura Newborn said in a statement.
The question of who pays what share of STP’s request will probably be decided years from now by a court, an arbitrator or negotiations. These will include insurance companies and Hitachi Zosen, which built and repaired the unprecedented 57-foot, 4-inch diameter machine.
Millar acknowledged Thursday “there is additional exposure” from the disputed STP claim.
State Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, rehashed an old argument from 2009, over a clause in state law saying that overruns would be paid by Seattle “property owners who benefit.”
No taxation method exists to collect money from the city government, nor the landowners who gain views and value once the viaduct comes down.
The state might conserve money on the future waterfront street, which chief engineer Linea Laird estimated at $190 million, based on layouts published this fall, in collaboration with the city.
That, plus maybe $40 million to demolish the viaduct, would still total millions less than the $290 million initially budgeted for surface work.
Years ago, then-City Councilmember Nick Licata worried the state would fund tunnel overruns by shortchanging the city on surface road work.
Mike O’Brien, head of the council’s Sustainability & Transportation Committee, wasn’t available for comment Thursday.
The city collaborated on the waterfront-boulevard concept published this fall — controversial not for its cost, but for its eight-lane, 111-foot girth, difficult for people to walk across, for two blocks south of the ferry dock.