A tool that’s more important than Bertha

Bertha, the SR 99 tunneling machine, is easily the most recognizable tool being used on the SR 99 Tunnel Project. But she’s not the most important tool.

That distinction belongs to our 1,373-page contract with Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP), the joint venture we hired to design and build the tunnel. The contract can’t bore a tunnel or build the highway within it, but it can perform the project’s most vital function: protecting taxpayers.

On most highway projects, WSDOT uses the traditional design-bid-build contracting approach – meaning the agency fully designs the project before awarding the construction contract to the lowest qualifying bidder. But WSDOT is increasingly taking advantage of a different, more streamlined contracting approach known as design-build. Design-build contracts are just what they sound like – WSDOT does preliminary design on the project, but final design and construction are up to the contractor.

This approach has been used successfully on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, I-5 Everett HOV, SR 519 and several I-405 projects. One appeal is that it gives the contractor more flexibility to bring lessons learned from other projects to the table. In the case of the tunnel project, it required STP to take a greater share of the risk than a traditional construction contract. As a result, more than 90 percent of their work is being performed for a fixed price.

That’s important for a number of reasons. As an agency, we have a wealth of experience delivering highway projects. But we’re not tunneling experts. Because we don’t have experience in building and operating a five-story-tall tunneling machine, we brought in STP, who has had success on some of the largest and most complicated tunneling projects in the world. Per our contract, it’s their job to purchase the machine and make sure it’s working properly. It’s their job to build the tunnel and open it to traffic within the schedule they proposed or face financial penalties.

Assuming more risk offered STP a greater opportunity for reward. How much it costs them to build the tunnel is up to them. They were able to choose their construction methods and the type of machine they wanted. If their choices prove successful and the project is completed for less than the contract price of $1.35 billion, they’ll reap the rewards. Similarly, challenges that set the project back will increase the cost of the project at their expense. To date, we haven’t seen any evidence from STP that suggests the state or taxpayers will be responsible for cost overruns associated with the current delay.

Building the SR 99 tunnel is a difficult job. STP is using a large, complex, custom-built machine in complex soils. They face space constraints and traffic constraints and time constraints. Nothing about this project is easy. But we all knew that going in. We planned for it. Our entire project management strategy – from initial budget development, through design and construction – is based on managing risk.

Right now, all of our energy is focused on resuming tunneling. We’ll continue to work with STP and outside experts as they work to get Bertha moving again. We’ll also continue to lean on our contract with STP, which came long before Bertha and will be around to protect taxpayers through the remainder of the project.