Inslee takes aggressive stance toward Highway 99 tunnel contractor

OLYMPIA – There’s no resolution in sight for the ongoing mess under Seattle.

Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday said the state is still trying to figure out what to do next after the decision was made to suspend digging a new Highway 99 tunnel amid concerns that a sinkhole could pose a danger to people and buildings in downtown Seattle.

“The engineers at the Department of Transportation have not been satisfied that they have a comprehensive enough evaluation of how this sinkhole developed and what the contractor will do to ensure that we don’t get a void like that that could be catastrophic under the viaduct or fragile buildings in downtown Seattle,” Inslee said.

The dig was delayed for two years after its tunnel-boring machine – known as Bertha – broke down. The latest shutdown came about when a sinkhole formed along the waterfront.

Inslee reiterated on Thursday that the state has learned the contractor hired to work on the project, Seattle Tunnel Partners, had stopped doing quality control work on the project. He said they had stopped measuring the volume of the dirt that was being removed, which can lead to a sinkhole.

“I’m hoping the contractor will show a renewed sense of responsibility and a renewed commitment to safety,” Inslee said. “We need that.”

The project, which is meant to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, is two years past its projected completion date and more than $200 million over budget. The state has said it doesn’t have a backup plan if the tunnel project fails.

Still, Inslee said the state won’t rush back into digging.

“We are all eager to get this project completed, but we have to understand the safety concerns of this,” he said. “I’ve heard the contractor sort of down play the significance of sink holes like, ‘No big deal.’ Well, excuse me, a sinkhole under the viaduct or under a brick building in Seattle is a big deal. So we have to have adequate information to move forward.”