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Senators say Seattle tunnel project has failed and should be stopped; bill unlikely to budge

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SEATTLE — Two state senators say it's time to scrap the stalled Seattle tunnel project and bury Bertha, the broken-down $80 million state-of-the-art drilling machine, so the transportation department can find alternatives to fix or replace the viaduct that carries traffic along the city's waterfront.

Republican Sens. Michael Baumgartner and Doug Ericksen introduced a bill Tuesday that says the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project has failed "and the project as it is currently designed cannot be justified financially." The state needs to "stop throwing money at a hole in the ground," said Baumgartner, from Spokane.

Sen. Curtis King, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said the bill was referred to his panel but won't get a hearing.

"While I understand my colleagues' concerns regarding the Seattle tunnel project, a bill to shut down a project of this size is not realistic," King, R-Yakima, said in a statement. "I think most people know that this is a 'mega project.' You cannot bore a hole of that magnitude under a major city and believe that there will not be challenges. There have been times when I too have been frustrated, but that doesn't mean we can just walk away from contracts and agreements without serious financial consequences."

Jaime Smith, spokeswoman for Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, said the state is behind the tunnel plan.

"The Legislature already made a decision on this project, and right now we need a safe new arterial through Seattle more than we need a historical debate," Smith said in an email.

Bertha only drilled about 1,000 feet of the 2-mile tunnel before hitting a pipe and breaking down. The rescue plan — a 120-foot-deep access pit that will let workers pull Bertha out and repair it — has been "plagued with delays due to the discovery of artifacts, soil conditions, and water levels," the bill said.

"The dewatering of large portions of downtown Seattle has likely caused over an inch of settling, thereby endangering structures of historic and cultural importance," the bill said. "Ironically, this activity has caused concerns regarding the sinking of part of the viaduct itself, despite the fact that the questionable structural integrity of the viaduct was one of the main reasons initially given for the need for the project."

The viaduct replacement project, whose budget exceeds $3.1 billion, was launched amid promises that no significant cost overruns would occur and the state would not be responsible for any additional costs, Baumgartner said. But the state attorney general has said the law passed to control cost overruns is not enforceable, and "the state will be on the hook for those costs."

Baumgartner said the final straw came last week when Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson met with the Senate Transportation Committee.

"Instead of taking responsibility, she just pointed the finger at the contractor," he said. "I asked her how many other shafts are in Bertha's path, and she said there were more shafts, manhole covers, all sort of things. This will get far, far worse before it's over.

"It's time to pull the plug."

Peterson responded by saying: "From the Nisqually earthquake in 2001 until legislation was signed in 2009, more than 90 different options were studied to replace the aging, seismically vulnerable viaduct. Our focus and commitment now, as it was then, is on delivering this critical safety project to the people of Washington."

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

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