Will Blunders on Mega-projects Doom an Already Shaky State Transportation Bill?

Bertha blocked. 520 barely afloat. Blunders on mega-projects may doom an already shaky state transportation bill.

Cracked and leaking pontoons; off-ramps put in the wrong place on state Route 16; Highway 520 bridge contractors drinking on the job; and an $80 million deep-bore tunneling machine, the world’s largest, that hasn’t chewed an inch of glacial silt since Pearl Harbor Day.

It does give one pause. The way things are progressing—or not, rather—it could take nearly three years to construct the 1.7-mile waterfront tunnel: about half the time it took to build the 1,907-mile-long First Transcontinental Railroad, and that was 150 years ago.

The cost of the design fiasco on the 520 bridge pontoons has reached $208 million, eating up most of the project’s contingency fund—all of which has forced Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson to add $170 million to the cost of the bridge replacement, now estimated to climb close to $3 billion.

Even small stuff goes awry. Recall how in 2007, when Washington State Ferries suddenly retired its “steel electric” fleet, it was forced to get new ferries built to handle certain routes. As a result, rushed designs led the state to pay $50 million more for the Chetzemoka than for other boats of similar design.

Two years later, in November 2009, engineers from the Washington State Department of Transportation discovered that the new off-ramp on the Nalley Valley Viaduct project on state Route 16 was 12 feet out of alignment with the proposed exit. It cost almost $1 million to fix.

As one Olympia wag who toiled as a staffer in the legislative trenches for nearly 20 years explains, “The perception back home is, ‘Why put any more money into this bottomless pit?’ ”

Of course, what could be more emblematic of a bottomless pit than the idle earth mover named for Seattle’s only woman mayor?

Like a whale upon the sand, the five-story-tall, 7,000-ton Bertha is awesome and yet helpless—at least when confronted with 8-inch-diameter steel well pipes. Since drilling began on July 29, the contraption has managed to bore through just 1,000 feet of dirt, and is now stuck in the muck. And the blame game is on.

Secretary Peterson has made it known that she “has had concerns” about the Highway 99 tunnel project almost from the summer day on which Bertha’s cutter head began to turn, prompting Seattle Tunnel Partners project manager Chris Dixon to blast WSDOT for casting STP “in a bad light.”

Meanwhile, the matter of whether WSDOT or STP is at fault for, shall we say, unfortunate communications over the hunk of pipe left in the ground by a WSDOT contractor in 2002—which poor Bertha bit into on December 3 beneath South Jackson Street and South Main Street—may eventually become a WPA project for lawyers. All in all, not a good omen for a badly needed and long overdue statewide transportation plan.

“It has poisoned the well,” says state Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-Shelton). “I mean, call before you dig, and fix the cracks before you float a pontoon.”

The well to which Sheldon is referring is the $12.3 billion transportation package that, after 10 months of fruitless negotiation, languishes in Olympia. Legislative leaders concede the megabill is hopelessly stalled, and have begun to hint that nothing will happen this year and the massive funding plan may be put off until the 2015 session.

Blame this, at least partially, on the well-publicized mistakes, delays, and cost overruns that plague the bridge and tunnel, observes Senate Republic Caucus Leader Mark Schoesler. “It has made it very difficult in the court of public opinion,” adds the Ritzville wheat farmer. “It has now become a very hard sell.”

Notes Tacoma Democrat Jake Fey, vice-chair of the House Transportation Committee: “This [the mistakes] have given them a place to go. It makes it easier for them to do nothing.”

All of which angers state Sen. Mark Mullet. “The fundamental reality is that traffic sucks, and to sit down and do nothing, that’s no solution,” says the Issaquah Democrat. “Yeah, everyone is frustrated with these problems, but that’s no excuse to do nothing.”

Last June, the Democrat-controlled House did manage to pass a $10 billion plan, financed in part by a 10.5¢-per-gallon gas-tax hike. Then in November, the Republican-dominated Senate Majority Coalition, which initially balked at any increase in the current state gas tax of 37.5 cents a gallon, bumped the hike a penny to 11.5¢ per gallon.

The Senate plan would end any talk of tolling on I-90—a budget fix being considered by some lawmakers—and focus on completing projects already underway, including the west landing of the 520 floating bridge. It also calls for widening I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass and the glutted I-5 choke point at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, as well as linking I-5 to highways 167 and 509.

Any agreement between the two bodies, though, is in serious jeopardy—not only because of WSDOT’s embarrassing goofs, but because of peripheral issues that have surfaced in recent weeks. For one thing, Republicans insist that sales taxes collected on construction projects be recycled back into future road works, while Democrats want the tax to go into the general fund.

Also, some GOP lawmakers are demanding that any transportation package must include reforms that would include revisiting how the state calculates prevailing wages when bidding construction projects. In addition, they demand a pledge from Gov. Jay Inslee to forgo a cap-and-trade agreement signed last fall with California, Oregon, and British Columbia.

So if the transportation bill goes down in flames, WSDOT’s blunders might not be the cause. Still, posits Transportation Choices Coalition executive director Rob Johnson, the recent flubs may have sown deep doubts beyond Olympia. “I’m not sure all these setbacks are having much of an impact in Olympia,” he says, “but it could have a big one if this thing ever goes to a public vote.”


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