- Associated Press - Monday, December 15, 2014

SEATTLE (AP) - State transportation officials assured the Seattle City Council Monday that the sinking ground near the tunnel project that triggered so much concern last week has stopped for now and no significant damage has been detected.

But they also said they’ve ordered Seattle Tunnel Partners to stop digging the pit it’s using to reach Bertha, the broken down tunneling machine, and they can’t say when they’ll be allowed to start up again.

Ray Hoffman with Seattle Public Utilities gave the council a different warning. Although no leaks have been detected in the water mains near the $2 billion Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project, the ground settlement was enough to threaten the water pipes deep underground and they’ll have to be replaced, hopefully before they break. They’ve shut down some of the valves for the main water pipes in the area to relieve some of the pressure for now, he said. Hoffman said fixing those pipes would be the state’s responsibility.

Laura Newborn, spokeswoman for WSDOT, said later Monday in an email: “We were unaware of SPU’s findings until today and plan to meet with them to look over their data and learn more about their findings.”

The panel also learned that the Legislature passed a law during the last session that prohibits any state money to be used to deal with transit problems that would occur if the State Route 99 viaduct is closed for any reason and 60,000 commuters have no way to move north and south along Seattle’s west side.

The tunnel project was designed to replace the viaduct, damaged during the 2001 earthquake, and open the waterfront. But it was fraught with challenges soon after the digging started.

Council President Tim Burgess, a longtime tunnel supporter, said it always was a complicated plan, but it’s backed by the mayor and the governor and Seattle voters expressed support in a 2011 ballot measure.

Councilman Mike O’Brien, a longtime skeptic, said too many questions remain unanswered, like “how do you know what happened in the first thousand feet isn’t going to happen in the second, third, fourth, fifth thousand feet that have to be drilled?”

“I remain very concerned about ultimately who makes the call of you can’t dig the pit anymore. It’s too risky. The viaduct’s too risky. We need to shut that down,” he said in a post-hearing interview. “It’s not clear to me who makes those calls.”

Monday’s hearing was a follow-up to last week’s disclosure that ground around the project had settled from 1 inch to 1.4 inches. The Council demanded an update on the sinking and also wanted to know the state’s contingency plan for short or long-term closure of the viaduct.

Washington Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson said settlement has stopped, no structures were damaged, except for some cosmetic problems, and “the vast majority of the replacement project is complete, 70 percent.”

WSDOT project member David Sowers said they’ve completed assessments on 20 buildings and found two that had minor damage that included cracks in plaster. They found damage, sticking doors and windows, at two other buildings but it’s not clear how recent the changes occurred.

When asked for a timeline to complete the project, Peterson said, “we don’t have a solid completion date from the contractor.”

“Both I and the governor are committee to the completion of this project,” she said. “We can’t commit to a specific timeline at this time.”

O’Brien said the “70 percent” completion statement was absurd.

“I was disappointed with that line,” he said. “It implies that we are mostly through this and we just have to wrap a few things up and it’s done. Anybody looking it will say you’ve done 1,000 feet out of 2-mile tunnel-digging project and the machine is stuck and we haven’t figured out what’s actually wrong with it or how we’re going to repair it. To imply that somehow we’re mostly done with it, I think, is misleading at best.”

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

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