In comments to the state senate transportation committee this afternoon, WSDOT viaduct replacement project administrator Todd Trepanier and state transportation secretary Lynn Peterson said they were confident that tunnel contractor Seattle Tunnel Partners would be able to figure out what has been blocking the downtown tunnel boring machine without going beyond the project schedule or over budget.
"I think there has been a lot of frustration [because] it seems like weeks have ticked by" since the tunnel has budged, Trepanier said. [Editor's note: They have.]
And they made it clear that WSDOT believes any cost overruns or delays because of the machine's stoppage are STP's responsibility, not WSDOT's. STP initially believed the machine broke down because it ran into an eight-inch steel pipe (an old well casing) installed by a WSDOT contractor 11 years ago, but is now preparing to take a look inside the machine's excavation chamber (which requires going underground at high pressure) to see what else may be contributing to the problem.
Earlier today, STP project manager Chris Dixon wrote a letter to Peterson accusing WSDOT of putting STP "on trial in the court of public opinion" by telling the media that WSDOT has been worried about STP's tunnel-boring operation since drilling began in July, and by saying STP has breached its contract by failing to hire the agreed-upon percentage of minority- and women-owned subcontractors (they've hired less than 2 percent so far, instead of the 8 percent they promised).
Although Peterson was conciliatory on the minority-contracting issue ("We are confident that we are going to come to a successful conclusion" on minority contracting, said Peterson, who also noted that WSDOT has not imposed financial sanctions on STP), Trepanier was less inclined to mince words on what he called STP's "responsibility" to fix (and pay for any extra costs associated with) the tunnel boring stoppage.
"We believe that ... that well [the pipe the machine ran into], although it was put in by WSDOT, was not WSDOT's responsibility to remove," Trepanier said. "If [STP] had been fulfilling their responsibility about decommissioning a well, they would have known that it was there."
In a somewhat more alarming vein, Trepanier continued, "We’re not at a place, risk-wise, where we think this project is not going to happen. … We still believe that is possible," he said, noting that WSDOT is "bringing on a tunnel operations task force" to make sure things are operating smoothly.
And in response to a question from Sen. Christine Rolfes (D-23), who represents ferry-dependent areas including Bainbridge and Kingston, about the seismic vulnerability of the under-construction tunnel, Trepanier responded, perhaps not as reassuringly as Rolfes hoped: "I am very confident that the tunnel is not going to cave in on itself. The [Alaskan Way] Viaduct itself is a question."