January 15, 2016 / 1:06 AM / 4 years ago

Finally repaired, Seattle's mega-tunnel drill halted by sinkhole

SEATTLE, Jan 14 (Reuters) - Just days after finally rumbling back to life, Seattle’s huge tunnel-digging machine, Bertha, was shut down by state officials on Thursday because of a small sinkhole, marking the latest snag for a long-delayed $3.1 billion waterfront highway project.

Contractor Seattle Tunnel Partners was told to suspend work on the project after the sinkhole opened up this week near the mega-drill, Washington Governor Jay Inslee told a news conference.

The stoppage was the latest problem to befall Bertha, the world’s largest tunnel-boring machine by diameter, which has became a symbol of failure to critics of the highway replacement project who have long argued it was ill-planned and expensive.

“I am seriously disappointed that we have another issue,” Inslee said.

Until last month, Bertha had sat idle after overheating in December 2013. Costing $80 million, weighing 7,000 tons and measuring the length of a football field, it had drilled out just 10 percent of the planned tunnel when it failed.

Following extensive repairs, Bertha was meant to be tunneling a few hundred feet this month to an area where it would undergo further inspections, a state transit official said, and then drill under the Alaskan Way Viaduct downtown.

The tunnel was supposed to be completed last month, but it will not be open for traffic until April 2018, according to estimates before the latest suspension. Seattle Tunnel Partners had no immediate comment on Thursday’s stoppage.

Critics of the project have drawn comparisons with Boston’s “Big Dig,” the costliest U.S. highway project. That took nearly a decade longer to complete than planned, and was notorious for cost overruns, design flaws, worker fatalities and other problems.

In Washington state, lawmakers have called for the project to be scrapped, workers have been injured and historic buildings downtown have been damaged after the double-decker highway and the earth around it sank.

Seattle Tunnel Partners, Bertha manufacturer Hitachi Zosen, their insurers, and Washington state are in a legal dispute over who will ultimately be responsible for repairing Bertha.

Seattle Tunnel Partners has filed a $143 million claim with insurers for repair costs, which their insurers are fighting in court. In October, the state’s transportation department sued the contractors, saying the estimate of the cost to the state from the delays was about $78 million.

The contractors cannot resume drilling until they identify the cause of the 20-foot-wide (6 metres), 15-foot-deep (4.5 metres) sinkhole and guarantee the safety of workers, Inslee said. (Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney)

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