State sues contractor building Seattle tunnel

SEATTLE (AP) — The state of Washington is suing the contractor building the $3.1 billion tunnel replacement project for Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct.

In a statement late Friday afternoon, the Department of Transportation says it filed the lawsuit against Seattle Tunnel Partners in King County Superior Court to preserve its legal rights in what is expected to be messy, future court battles over the troubled tunnel project.

Transportation spokeswoman Laura Newborn says Friday's legal action was taken following court filings by STP and its insurance companies.

The Washington State Department of Transportation said Friday it had filed a lawsuit against its tunnel-boring contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners, to enable the state to make legal claims in the future.

“WSDOT is committed to working with Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP) to complete the SR 99 Tunnel Project," the department said in a news release. "We are also committed to protecting taxpayers.

"Today, WSDOT filed a lawsuit against STP in King County Superior Court. This filing was prompted by recent court filings by STP and their insurance companies. Filing this lawsuit ensures WSDOT will have a right to make legal claims in the future. This lawsuit does not prevent STP from pursuing claims under the terms of the design-build contract.

"Taking action to preserve WSDOT’s rights in court was a necessary step. Our focus remains on completing the project, and removing the seismically vulnerable Alaskan Way Viaduct. We intend to ask for a stay of WSDOT’s lawsuit until the project is completed and asked STP to join us in this request.

"This delay in the lawsuit will allow for work on the SR 99 Tunnel Project to be completed before litigation takes place.

"The intent of today’s action is simple: protect the interests of Washington taxpayers."

The court action comes after reports earlier this week that WSDOT expects to lose $78 million because of the two-year delay of the tunnel-boring machine Bertha.

The Seattle Times, which reported the news, cited a letter from the state project team to insurers.

In the Sept. 23 letter, WSDOT outlined its wish to be reimbursed by insurance companies.

The Times said the $78 million figure reflects extra spending on administrators, engineers, consulting firms and office space for the overtime. It also includes construction inflation.

The four-lane tunnel was supposed to open to traffic at the end of this year.

Tunneling has been suspended since December 2013, when Bertha broke down underground.

STP Project Manager Chris Dixon recently said the machine will not start tunneling again until November, pushing completion of the project back until March 2018 – more than two years behind schedule.