Bertha announcement: It's a tunnel! | KUOW News and Information

Bertha announcement: It's a tunnel!

Apr 4, 2017

It’s over.

As dozens of people looked on Tuesday, Bertha broke through to daylight after a nearly two mile dig under Seattle that took almost four years. Seattle is one step closer to replacing the aging Alaskan Way viaduct and moving a two mile section of state route 99 underground. 

The project was a massive engineering accomplishment, but it was hampered by delays. Despite the road bumps, Washington Governor Jay Inslee said he has no regrets.

"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. And today, when you see this tunnel boring, the only thing stronger I think that I've seen is King Kong, and now we've got ourselves a tunnel. So I'm glad we kept going," Inslee said.

The tunneling project has been a mammoth undertaking. Officials say its completion marks a key milestone in the effort to provide fast and reliable trips along state route 99 for cars and freight. They say the route supports the movement of more than $30 billion in cargo each year.

King County Executive Dow Constantine said the completion of Bertha's dig is a defining moment for the region — on par with the founding of the University of Washington and the building of the Space needle.

"Those were moments that helped define what this region is, and what we'll become. And just as we completed this remarkable work of engineering today, we're going to continue to build. Because entropy is not a friend."

Bertha's job may be done, but it wasn't all smooth sailing. The tunneling machine overheated in late 2013, causing massive delays. The project will also come in up to $149 million over budget. There's an ongoing court battle over who will pay for the cost overruns. But Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said it won't be the city.

"We don't ask any city or county in this state to pay for a state project. If we begin asking one city to pay for it, all cities will pay for it. I don't think the legislature wants to go there," Murray said.

As well as the overruns, critics have questioned the decision to sink millions into a new highway in an era where climate change is such a big issue.

But to tunnel contractor Chris Dixon this milestone is historic and has implications beyond Seattle. He said the fact that one of the biggest machines in the world could cut through tough soil conditions under a major city opens the door for other projects like this.

"I think with what we've proven here, it's going to create opportunities going forward for other large diameter tunnel projects that were never attempted in the past until we attempted it on this project."

Just a few blocks away from Bertha's final resting place, Wendell Wilson isn't thinking about more projects. He's surprised this one was finished at all.

"Nah, I thought it was going to be at least one more breakdown and another year is what I was thinking."

Wilson drives SR 99 every now and then, and he's glad Bertha is done and the new route is moving forward. Still, it will be a while before Wilson — or anyone else — gets to drive through the new tunnel.

Crews still have to complete the double-decker highway within, as well as install electric, plumbing and safety systems.

The old viaduct also has to be demolished and a toll rate still needs to be set.

The state estimates the tunnel will open to traffic in 2019.

Correction 4/5/2017: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the cost overruns of the Bertha project.