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Inslee: State will hold Seattle tunneling machine contractor accountable for cost overruns

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SEATTLE - As a contracting team works to fix broken seals on a massive tunneling machine stalled under downtown Seattle, state officials said Tuesday they plan to hold the contractors accountable for repairs or any potential cost overruns on the highway tunnel project.

Gov. Jay Inslee said the state will insist that the contractors honour their contract, much as a homeowner who hires a contractor to remodel a house would.

"We're going to insist that the tunnel gets built on time or the contractor is going to be financially responsible to the citizens of this state for every single penny of cost overruns that that contractor could eventually be responsible for," Inslee said Tuesday.

His comments came during a news conference in Olympia to announce a state moratorium on the death penalty.

Seattle Tunnel Partners is deciding how to fix broken seals on the world's largest tunneling machine, called "Bertha," which is stuck about 60 feet underground. It's been mostly idle for two months and is only one-tenth of the way toward completing a 1.7-mile highway tunnel. The tunnel will carry Highway 99 traffic and allow the removal of the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct along the Seattle waterfront. The tunnel project is budgeted at $1.4 billion, and the total viaduct replacement is estimated to be a $3.1 billion project.

Transportation officials announced late Monday that it could take months to fully repair the boring machine.

"We're sure that it can be fixed," Chris Dixon, director of Seattle Tunnel Partners said at a news conference Tuesday. He added that the machine has performed and advanced much faster than expected during the first 150 days, despite becoming stuck in late December.

"It's not like this machine hasn't gotten out of the starting block and hasn't performed," he said. "We're at a point now where there's been damage to the seals."

Last Friday, the Transportation Department said inspections conducted last month found that many of the machine's cutter-head openings were clogged with dirt and other debris.

Transportation officials also announced that the seal system protecting Bertha's main bearing was damaged. This was revealed after "higher-than-normal heat sensor readings" appeared.

Dixon said Tuesday that the problem isn't unusual with tunnel boring machines, and he noted Seattle Tunnel Partners' contract with the state requires an extra bearing be manufactured as backup.

He also acknowledged the state isn't on the hook for repairs, saying his group has yet to make a case otherwise to the Transportation Department.

Under the contract, the contractor supplies the boring machine, said Todd Trepanier of the transit agency.

"It's a contractor-owned machine," he added. "We have an expectation that they will fulfil that contract."

The highway inside the 52-foot tunnel is slated to open by the end of 2015.

Asked whether traffic would be moving on schedule, Dixon said it depends on "how quickly we resume tunneling and how well the tunneling goes when we resume."

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