Sound Stories. Sound Voices.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
You are on the KUOW archive site. Click here to go to our current site.
00000181-fa79-da89-a38d-fb7f2a000000Bertha, the world's biggest tunneling machine, is a five-story-tall monstrosity of drilling tasked with digging out the tunnel for State Route 99 to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. It's journey to the center of the earth underneath downtown Seattle began in July 2013, and since then the project has seen its fair share of successes and failures.Follow the progress of the $3 billion megaproject with KUOW.

Bertha's Small Triumphs Fail To Impress Weary Public

One section of Bertha's front body now sits on the ground near the rescue pit.
AP Photo/Ted Warren
One section of Bertha's front body now sits on the ground near the rescue pit.

A 270-ton section of Bertha’s front body now lies on the ground in downtown Seattle, ready for workers to add steel reinforcing. The Seattle Tunnel Partners hopes to lay the tunnel borer's cutter head nearby in a couple of weeks. 

They’ll be repaired so workers can complete the tunnel that’s replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct. KUOW’s Joshua McNichols went to Pioneer Square to see how people are feeling about Bertha these days.


Seeing part of Bertha’s shell lying on the ground can make you optimistic. Engineers are doing their thing. Problems are being solved. But step away from the drill’s rescue pit, and you’re more likely to hear people criticize the project than celebrate the tiny milestones that mark Bertha’s rescue.

Amber Miner: “Really guys? When do you say enough is enough and just give it up?”

That’s Amber Miner. She works in the Seattle Mystery Bookshop with J.B. Dickey. Dickey says reading mystery novels gives them a unique perspective on Bertha.

Dickey: “Well, I guess for the most part I’m kind of conspiratorially minded. So I want to know what’s going on that they’re not telling us.”

Miner: “You don’t believe anything anybody tells you unless you can back it up with fact.”

Dickey would have preferred a rebuilt viaduct to a tunnel.

Out on the street, many people seem to share the mystery lovers’ sense of conspiracy. Andrew West commutes to his Seattle job from Tacoma.

West: “The state of Washington always has a way of overpromising, underdelivering on everything that they do. I knew this was gonna come out of the taxpayer’s dollars, just like I knew the two stadiums were gonna come out of the taxpayer dollars when they said it wasn’t going to. So I’m not pleased. I’m not pleased at all.”

It’s still unclear whether taxpayers will have to foot the bill for any of Bertha’s cost overruns.

On Thursday, a giant section of Bertha’s body was lifted triumphantly from the pit, but few people around Pioneer Square seemed willing to stand up for Bertha.

Still, the drill has a defender in window washer Dominic Ruelaz.

Ruelaz: “I think it’s cool. Honestly. Big-ass drill under the city? Doing something new for our future? I mean, I think it’s cool. I just wish there weren’t as many technical problems. You know? But … whatever.”

In a town that, at least on this day, seems wary of Bertha’s delays, “whatever” sounds like high praise.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Bertha unveiled in the rescue pit in downtown Seattle.", "fid": "116217", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201503/watw121.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Ted Warren, Associated Press"}]]