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OM in the News: Stuck in Seattle With Big Bertha

April 13, 2015
Inside the Seattle tunnel last year

Inside the Seattle tunnel last year

Megaprojects almost always fall short of their promises—costing too much, delivering underwhelming benefits, or both, reports BusinessWeek (April 6-12, 2015). Yet from the London-­Paris Chunnel to Boston’s Big Dig, cities still fall for them, seduced by new technologies and the lure of the perfect fix.

Back in Seattle, everything about the new project to build a tunnelled roadway though the heart of the city is gargantuan, starting with the underground drilling machine called Bertha. Bertha is as tall as a 5-story building. Her job is to bury a highway that runs on a structurally unsound elevated road smack in the middle of an earthquake zone. The viaduct, as it’s called, follows the shoreline, effectively barricading downtown Seattle from what could be a beautiful waterfront. Bertha runs on a 25,000-horsepower motor and has a head weighing 1.7 million pounds, with 260 steel teeth designed specifically to chew through Seattle’s silty soil.

But Bertha broke abruptly in December 2013 after boring through just 1,000 feet, a small portion of her job. Her seals busted, and her teeth clogged with grit and pieces of an 8-inch steel pipe left over from old groundwater tests. She stopped entirely. Now the tunnel, with a budget of $1.4 billion and originally scheduled to be finished in November 2015, is 2 years behind schedule. The contractor has spent months digging to reach Bertha and crane her to the surface, where a weary Seattle awaits. After Bertha got stuck, she couldn’t back up because she builds the concrete walls of the tunnel as she drills forward.

Bertha may be a lemon, but there is no Plan B. The state and the contractor say they’re not abandoning ship. Bertha has become too big to fail. Nine times out of 10, though, massive infrastructure jobs go over budget. Tunnels on average cost 34% more than anticipated. No country or state is any better at predicting costs, and over the past 70 years, less than half of the world’s megaprojects have delivered their promised monetary benefit.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Why do large projects tend to run late and over budget?

2. What tools in Chapter 3 can be used to control projects better?

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