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February 27, 2014 at 10:13 AM

New report: Tunnel project will be late, could be on budget

The Highway 99 tunnel project will probably be finished a few months late, even if workers accelerate by working 24 hours a day, says a report this morning by the governor’s expert-review panel, whose primary job is to examine financial risks.

Nonetheless, the panel maintains confidence the entire $3.1 billion Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, including the $2 billion tunnel, can be done on budget — because non-tunnel parts of the viaduct replacement are going fine, even as the giant boring machine remains idle and in need of a major repair. Contractors have said it will take several months to get the machine moving again.

“Current challenges notwithstanding, the ERP finds that, based on information available to us, the Project is likely to be completed, within the existing budget, and on a schedule that is somewhat delayed,” says the 43-page document, which predicts completion in the first half of 2016.

The panel ventures no guess as to how much money it will take to fix the damaged bearing seals in tunnel machine Bertha, which has moved only 4 feet since sand was found in the lubricating grease Dec. 7 — and the report acknowledges that a root-cause analysis may “supersede the information contained herein and could change the ERP’s finding.”

The state says that under the design-build contracting system, Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP) and machine builder Hitachi-Zosen are responsible to work out the costs to repair or replace the $5 million bearing. But claims or lawsuits, to seek taxpayer money, are likely.

In other highlights, the panel says the biggest risk to the project is “strained relations” between the state Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and STP executives — in particular that Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson publicly declared STP to be in breach of contract, for failing to hire sufficient minority-owned small subcontractors in 2012-13.

“The issues have been intensified by WSDOT executive management’s decision to declare STP to be in “breach” of the contract. The companies comprising the STP joint venture believe WSDOT’s “breach” action has damaged their reputations and compromised their ability to seek business elsewhere in the United States,” the report says.

The two sides publicly pointed fingers in January, in particular about whose fault it was that a steel groundwater-research pipe was left in the ground and struck by the tunnel machine.

The panel suggests that WSDOT’s technical advisers, who have tunneling experience, hold informal talks with STP’s team. To date, the sides have stayed at arm’s length.

And the experts say there are chances to regain lost time. For instance, by changing from 20 hours, five days a week to 24 hours, seven days a week, the work team could save up to eight weeks. In addition, by starting to build the highway decks at the south portal right now, while Bertha is stopped, another six weeks could be saved.

The report also says that a $290 million allotment to tear down the old viaduct, and build a surface Alaskan Way street, is too high, and DOT could save up to $70 million.

Judy Clibborn, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, said she’s heartened by the report overall.

She notes that the DOT has secured a commitment from the Port of Seattle to provide the port’s pledged $300 million — solving a problem that the expert panel flagged in previous reports as an important risk.

Clibborn vowed to prevent “scope creep” — that is, the adding of features or sub-projects that would drain the tunnel fund. For instance, Clibborn said she will resist any attempts to spend tunnel money to continue supplemental Metro Transit buses on the Alaskan Way Viaduct, even though Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson directed her staff to find perhaps $20 million to keep the popular service going after the current $32 million in bus aid expires this summer.

About $78 million in contingency money remains in the $2 billion tunnel portion of the overall $3.1 billion viaduct replacement budget, based on a DOT report to the federal government last summer. Today’s report suggests the contingency will be completely tapped, though the methodology isn’t immediately clear.

STP said in its bid proposal the four-lane highway tube from Sodo to South Lake Union would open to traffic by the end of 2015, which is 10 months sooner than the state required in the bidding rules.

Within a few days, STP and DOT are expected to announce a strategy to fix machine, using a 120-foot-deep pit to remove the rotary cutting face and gain access to the problem area.

Comments | More in Traffic & Transit | Topics: Highway 99 tunnel

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