Bertha Blame Game, Mismanagement Damages More Than Just Tunnel Project

Big infrastructure projects require unity, not enmity.

In August, when New York celebrated the opening of the Tappan Zee replacement bridge over the Hudson River, Governor Andrew Cuomo crowed about completing the $4 billion structure “on time and on budget.” That achievement was notable, he said, at a time when a litigious society and “NIMBY” concerns have made politicians allergic to risk, contributing to a deterioration in America’s public infrastructure.

By contrast, when dignitaries gathered in April to witness Bertha, the Seattle tunnel-boring machine, complete its 2-mile journey under the city, the $3.2 billion Alaskan Way viaduct replacement project was several years behind schedule and cost hundreds of millions more than originally budgeted. And the battle over who should pay for those additional costs could keep costs climbing for years to come.

Both projects were large, complex endeavors that used innovative contracts to help manage risk. But there was at least one important difference: New York and its contractors “made a conscious decision not to criticize each other,” says Patricia Galloway, the CEO of Cle Elum-based Pegasus-Global Holdings. She was a consultant on the New York project as well as chair of the expert review panel for the Seattle tunnel. 

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and its contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP), have played “the blame game” over whether a steel well casing left in Bertha’s path was responsible for damage to the giant boring machine and who was responsible for leaving it there (see here). Both parties declined to abide by decisions made by a dispute resolution board established by WSDOT to address such conflicts.

WSDOT also inexplicably blocked an expert review panel, established to oversee the project, from speaking to Bertha’s maker, Hitachi Zosen — a conversation that might have provided valuable information to help the state resolve ongoing disputes with its contractor. WSDOT would have learned, for example, that STP’s operation of Hitachi Zosen’s boring machine might have played an important role in the damage done to the tunneling machine.

One possible reason for WSDOT’s apparent lack of commitment to the process may have been that the project’s contract had been drafted under one governor and WSDOT administration but executed under another. “When management changes,” Galloway points out, “it’s important for the transition to understand what is in place.”

That may sound like boring process stuff. But when it comes to managing large projects, process is important. If a project is managed well, as with the new Tappan Zee Bridge, it raises the public’s confidence in public servants and makes taxpayers more willing to invest in needed public infrastructure.

Elon Musk, who has confounded skeptics with his success in building electric cars and reusable rockets, envisions a future in which densely populated cities build transportation networks that extend as far down into the earth as skyscrapers extend upward. It’s far from clear that Musk’s vision is the right one. What is clear is that with the Seattle area experiencing unprecedented population growth, a significant investment in bridges, roads and tunnels will need to be made.

Unfortunately, Washington state’s handling of the tunnel project has strengthened the hand of big-project skeptics who seem happy to let our transportation infrastructure continue to deteriorate.

Leslie Helm, executive editor of Seattle Business magazine, grew up in Japan. He speaks fluent Japanese and recently met with executives of Hitachi Zosen Corporation — in Osaka and inside the Seattle tunnel — to discuss the company’s position in its dispute with Seattle Tunnel Partners and the Washington State Department of Transportation over delays in the viaduct replacement tunnel project linked to Hitachi Zosen’s tunnel-boring machine. Read his feature story here.

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