Contractor announces aggressive plans to fix Bertha

SEATTLE -- The contractor in charge of Seattle's viaduct replacement tunnel just announced a timeline to repair Bertha, the machine digging the tunnel.

Seattle Tunnel Partners calls their plan aggressive, but State Department of Transportation officials are skeptical it will even work.

Bertha has been out of commission since December, when the giant boring machine ran into a buried pipe. Crews will soon start digging down to reach -- and hopefully repair -- the machine.

Once they reach Bertha, crews will hoist the broken parts back to the surface for repairs. The problem now is that nobody is sure of exactly what caused the damage.

"There's nothing that's been specifically identified," said STP spokesperson Chris Dixon.

Dixon said STP has ordered the company that made Bertha -- Hitachi Zosen -- to replace the broken parts with new and improved parts, including several rubber seals and the huge bearing that drives Bertha's cutter head.

They also plan on installing new sensors and software to warn engineers if new problems pop up.

Dixon says they'll do the work for free for now, until the final bill comes due.

"You have to remember, their reputation is on the line as well," he said.

In order to still earn bonuses for delivering the tunnel on time, STP has announced an aggressive repair schedule to put Bertha back together. By next February they plan to test her out, and by March they say they'll start tunneling again.

Not everyone is convinced they can do it.

"We are skeptical on the overall schedule," said WSDOT's Todd Trepanier.

Trepanier said WSDOT has now hired an outside contractor to watch STP's work like a hawk.

"And we will pressure them to make sure that they're accountable," he said.

One thing neither side will answer is how much the pit and the new parts and repairs will cost, and will taxpayers ended up paying for it?

The final factor for who pays the bill might depend on what caused Bertha to break down in the first place, and we may not know that until this fall.

STP says they're concentrating on working with Hitachi Zosen to get the tunnel project done.