The state should pay Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP) for tackling severe groundwater flows around the launch pit in Sodo for the Highway 99 tunnel machine, a dispute resolution board says.
STP is seeking $20 million, based on a request two years ago. That sum could be covered by the state’s existing tunnel contract, whose $1.44 billion total includes a $40 million fund to deal with unexpected soil conditions and major interventions, such as sending crews to break boulders in front of tunnel boring machine Bertha’s cutterhead.
“This can be paid for without what is considered a cost overrun in the budget,” said Todd Trepanier, the state’s project administrator, at a House Transportation Committee hearing Thursday afternoon.
Still, the ruling shows that the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) can’t just assume taxpayers will be spared from future cost overruns. Disputes lie ahead over STP’s $125 million request linked to repairs and delays for the stuck tunnel machine, plus whatever obstacles remain along the path from Sodo to South Lake Union. The state is in for a long struggle.
In fact, Trepanier said change-order requests are now up to $210 million, compared to $144 million in contingency money including the intervention fund. The state has denied most of the STP requests, but that’s only the first step in assigning cost. Previously, The Seattle Times reported STP requests near $190 million.
The dispute board did not decide the amount the state should pay for Sodo groundwater, just that soil data supplied by the state was incorrect. If the state accepts the board’s view, it would seek negotiations with STP, and documents to show how much STP actually spent to deal with the problem.
The Sodo area south of downtown Seattle was built on weak fill soil deposited near Elliott Bay, where the Duwamish River flowed through tideflats.
“It was very clear to all in all the contractual documentation that the area had a lot of groundwater in it,” said Matt Preedy, deputy Highway 99 program administrator for WSDOT. However, the board accepted the idea that “the various [groundwater] strata are in different locations than what had been portrayed,” he said. The dispute board found a “differing site condition was encountered in the glacial soils and that STP is entitled to relief,” WSDOT said in an update to legislators.
“Differing site conditions” means that STP alleges the soils are worse than what the state told them in geotechnical before tunneling started. Soil disputes are a leading cause of cost overruns on megaprojects worldwide, not to mention a niche within the legal profession.
Many months ago, anybody walking within the Sodo jobsite could see water ponding at the floor of the tunnel’s south operations building site, which is being built mostly underground between CenturyLink Field and the tunnel’s south entrance. Construction required frequent pumping. In addition, STP fended off leaks in the launch pit itself, where a cut-and-cover roadway slopes downward toward the future four-lane buried tube.
The $20 million Sodo groundwater issue and others are listed in this document,
But the WSDOT prevailed in another dispute-board ruling, which said contractors should pay to strengthen the foundations of the old Alaskan Way Viaduct, where Bertha would eventually pass beneath at Yesler Way. That request, estimated by STP at $5.5 million, hasn’t been settled yet.
Last April, Trepanier argued there “would be a very slim chance” taxpayers wind up covering STP’s claims. State leaders, including Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson, have insisted the tunnel’s $1.44 billion “design-build” contract makes STP liable for Bertha’s upcoming repair bill.
The three-member dispute resolution board, composed of tunneling experts, doesn’t have the final say because the parties may negotiate, seek arbitration or sue. However, the board’s views would play a role in any arbitration or lawsuit down the road.