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.