Bertha, a peach or a lemon?

Bertha is as tall as a 5-story building that runs on a 25,000hp motor and has a head weighting about 1.7 million pounds. It is the world’s biggest tunnel boring machine, costing US$ 80 million built specifically for Washington State Dept. of transportations to build a megaproject in Seattle. Hitachi Zosen, a Japanese worker, manufactured the machine in Seattle in June 2013

The objective of Seattle’s megaproject is to bring the waterfront back to life through burying a highway that runs on a structurally unsound elevated road smack in an earthquake zone and digging a tunnel that would shift the city traffic underground. This would enable Seattleites to celebrate the glory of Puget Sound.

The rapid growth in technology allowed Seattle’s megaproject to depend on one piece of engineering (Bertha), its technique is basically building the tunnel’s walls while drilling forward through installing precast concrete rings which makes it impossible for it to get backward as the hole she leaves behind is narrower than her size. The tunnel was expected to be complete in November 2015 with a budget of US$ 1.4 billion however; Bertha went through the same dilemma as many other megaprojects. Its cost went over-budget, got delay, and only 12% of her mission was completed.

In December 2013, Bertha stopped entirely after hitting a steel pipeline that was left over from an old groundwater test. Bertha was stuck in a 1000feet deep and the only way to rescue her was through digging a hole and cranes her up to the surface. Some contractors agreed with the idea because they believed Bertha became too big to fail where others argues that bertha was a lemon and should be buried where she is.

This is a common case with megaprojects where too big to fail beliefs misled  managers about discontinuing projects even though it’s going over budget, delayed and its benefits are not fully met. Considering a megaprojects as a sunk cost is an extremely difficult decision and not many managers can make.

Seattle project lacked an early contingency plan and contingency funding estimate, because it was induced by the advancement in technology, which makes it possible for one piece of engineering to accomplish this mission. These kinds of megaprojects are difficult to measure, and not having a contingency plan from the early stages would increase uncertainty even more.

If Bertha revives, it would take another four years; furthermore it would be digging even deeper under the city and expected to go through eight different ground conditions, where the same rescue missions will be more difficult and disruptive. Bertha route carry a lot of ambiguity, and not hitting another hindrances will be just a matter of time. I believe that megaprojects must tighten control over risk, and the risk of Bertha stoppage must be mitigated because of its severe circumstances, not only on its financial funding but also because it has a huge impact on the pollution. I believe technology is a key but in this case it backfires.

4 thoughts on “Bertha, a peach or a lemon?

  1. Great post!! I agree that the management should have considered a backup plan (contingency plan) for such a huge project giving the fact that Tunnels on average cost 34% more than anticipated and that 9 out of every 10 megaproject goes over budget. However, the question that popped into my mind is whether it’s worth it repairing Bertha or that it should be burned where she is??

  2. This is a very attention-grabbing Post. Its shows from the beginning that the project wasn’t well planned out. They took this as being a megaproject and got very excited about it and forgot to go over the logistics and plan it correctly from the start. We often see this is a lot of megaprojects, the ted to look to the end results forgetting to plan they right way to get there and not establishing a contingency plan(s).
    This results in the project stopping, losing all that money that was invested in it, all project members pointing fingers at each other trying to blame one or another for not planning it correctly.
    Therefore, before starting a megaproject, project managers should take a look at other projects that failed to see the light and try to come up with a plan or a way to avoid the mistakes that happened.

  3. “Too big too fail”; I can’t help but be reminded of the Titanic. While I do agree that the project needed a lot more planning from the get go, can we also agree that human ego and arrogance played a big part of the projects failure too?

    Back on topic, I’m inclined to say that Bertha is difinetly a peach. Afterall, It’s not her fault humans lack foresight!

  4. Interesting post! I think this project is very risky since it depends heavily on the ground conditions, in which unexpected event may cause a huge failure. In such case, I think risk management should be carefully applied. Also I do agree that it is very important to have contingency plan.

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