The Great Big Drill Causing Seattle Great Big Problems

by | December 24, 2014

By Maria L. La Ganga

Some say the pubs of Pioneer Square are haunted, that apparitions appear mysteriously in photos, that guests feel a strong hand pushing them down stairs, that ghosts lurk within some of the century-old brick buildings.

These days, the historic square's saloons are possessed by a different kind of spirit _ not just the 80-proof kind. These days, the walls themselves are moving. So is the ground beneath them.

Seattle blames Bertha, a 7,000-ton drilling device _ as long as a football field, as tall as a five-story building _ plagued by a curse of her own.

Bertha arrived with great fanfare in July 2013, designed to bore a 2-mile tunnel beneath Seattle's downtown and allow this graceful city to tear down a clunky, 1950s-era double-decker highway that separates skyscrapers from scenic Puget Sound. The massive machine broke down a year ago and has barely moved since. Efforts to fix her have been peppered with problems, the latest of which are the talk of the slightly scruffy historic core. Parts of Pioneer Square have sunk. Walls have split.

Concerns have grown.

Michael Petrone presides over the J&M Cafe and Merchant's Cafe and Saloon, troubled buildings at the beginning and end of the Pioneer Square Haunted Pub Tour. Yes, they're around 100 years old, but Petrone insists their problems are of much more recent vintage.

"We have a lot of cracks in the basement," Petrone said on a rainy Thursday afternoon at the J&M. "The bigger ones have gotten bigger. And some of the smaller ones have gotten smaller because of the shifting. ... We're in the armpit of Seattle here. What happens when they get another half mile down to the Four Seasons?"

Petrone beamed his flashlight along the pub's dank basement wall, illuminating a nearly inch-wide crack that wanders down the old plaster. A sensor spans the dark line, part of an effort to monitor earth settling and building shifts in the blocks along the snake-bit tunnel's path.

"All the doors are stuck," Petrone said as he meandered below ground, pointing out canted floors and damp spots. "The building is bending and buckling. The floor was level a year ago. ... There was never water coming in the basement. Now it's coming in constantly."

It wasn't supposed to be this way.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct Project was envisioned as a means to move traffic underground, demolish a seismically unsound elevated roadway and revitalize Seattle's waterfront. Bertha was central to the ambitious effort.

The tunnel borer is named for Bertha Knight Landes, who was elected mayor here in 1926 and was the first woman to lead a major American city. It is unclear at this point whether she would appreciate the honor.

Seattle Tunnel Partners is the $3 billion project's contractor. In a lengthy, online FAQ, the state Department of Transportation last week gave a spare and optimistic explanation for its problems:

"In December 2013, Seattle Tunnel Partners stopped tunneling approximately 1,000 feet into the tunnel drive after experiencing increased temperatures in the machine. While investigating the cause of the high temperature readings, Seattle Tunnel Partners discovered damage to the machine's seal systems and contamination within the main bearing."

The company "plans to make repairs and enhancements to the machine and resume tunneling in March 2015," the explanation continued. "The tunnel is scheduled to open to drivers in 2016."

Um, not so fast.

During a briefing last week to the City Council on Bertha's bothers, Lynn Peterson, state transportation secretary, disabused the Emerald City of any such notion: "Neither myself or anyone in the industry can provide you with a general timeline for completion."

On Monday, Peterson's agency released Seattle Tunnel Partners' latest shot in the dark: Tunneling won't resume until late April, and the project will open to traffic in August _ 2017.

Many things have gotten in Bertha's way: A "mystery object" that turned out to be a simple steel pipe. A buried deposit of shells first thought to be left by Native Americans was really the detritus of white 19th century inhabitants. And now the uneven settling of Pioneer Square.

Seattle Tunnel Partners has been pumping groundwater from the area to enable workers to dig an access pit so they can get to the stalled drill and fix it. The Department of Transportation and the partnership are trying to figure out whether that groundwater pumping destabilized the area, causing the earth to settle more than an inch in some places and the viaduct to sink, too.

Inspectors have surveyed about 50 buildings in the neighborhood and are continuing to monitor for movement. Excavation was stopped briefly and has since resumed. Seattle Tunnel Partners refused to comment on Bertha's troubles, instead sending an inquiry to a Transportation Department spokeswoman, who answered questions on the state's behalf but not for the contractor.

State officials say the sinking has largely stopped and that inspectors have found minor, recent cosmetic damage in only "a handful" of the Pioneer Square buildings.

(c)2014 Los Angeles Times