Washington officials: State, contractor still battling over stalled Seattle tunnel project

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SEATTLE — The manager for the troubled Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement project told lawmakers Thursday that the state and the contractor are still battling over tens of millions of dollars in repairs dating back to 2012, but even if the contractor declares bankruptcy tomorrow, the project could still be completed.

The state House Transportation Committee had its first chance Thursday to ask questions about the tunnel and another giant transportation project — the state Route 520 bridge replacement on Lake Washington. Some questions remained unanswered, including, "When will the tunnel be done?"

The tunnel was designed to replace the viaduct, which was damaged in a 2001 earthquake. The plan is to move Highway 99 under the city and open the waterfront. But the massive tunneling machine called Bertha broke down in December 2013 after about drilling about 1,000 feet of the 2-mile tunnel. Crews are digging a 120-foot-deep pit in front of Bertha so the machine can be pulled out and repaired. So far, they've dug down 106 feet, according to project manager Todd Trepanier.

He repeated his department's previous claim that the $2 billion project is 70 percent complete but said officials still can't speculate on a completion date.

Trepanier said the state's issues with the contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners, are common in complex construction projects and a dispute review board is in place to resolve conflicts.

In 2012, Seattle Tunnel Partners asked for an additional $20 million because the ground near the start of the tunnel was different than plans suggested, Trepanier said. The review board heard the case and sided with the contractor on Jan. 16. The state is reviewing the decision and has not agreed to pay anything yet, Trepanier said.

Laura Newborn, spokeswoman for the project, said in an email that the state has a $40 million contingency fund set aside to pay for such issues.

Trepanier said that so far, Seattle Tunnel Partners is seeking $210 million in change orders for problems it says are the state's responsibility. The state has denied $162 million in change orders and is reviewing the remaining $48 million, he said.

The contractor also has said that a pipe that was not included on the design plans caused Bertha to break down. Newborn said both sides agreed to bring that argument to the review board. A hearing is scheduled for March, she said.

One lawmaker asked what happens if Seattle Tunnel Partners goes bankrupt and leaves. Trepanier said there is a $500 million bond along with $370 million left on the contract. The state could use that $870 million to pay a new contractor.

Trepanier also said ground settlement around the project of up to an inch in some places has stabilized, with officials monitor the situation closely. He said it was too complicated to provide a number when Rep. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, asked what the maximum allowed settlement depth would be.

Julie Meredith, program administrator for the 520 floating bridge, was upbeat about the progress on that project. Officials held a ribbon-cutting for work completed on the east end, and they have 74 of 77 pontoons that will be used to float the bridge out on Lake Washington, she said. They hope to have portions open in early 2016. It remains unclear where officials will get the $1.5 billion needed to complete what she called "the rest of the west" — the section that reaches into Seattle and Interstate 5.


Follow Martha Bellisle at https://twitter.com/marthabellisle .

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