Grumbling over tunnel toll louder as Bertha stays quiet

SEATTLE - The grumbling over the tunnel boring project to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct and how much it may cost drivers to use it is definitely louder than the work itself right now.

Bertha, the machine digging the replacement tunnel, still sits idle as the debate over her overall cost and tolling rages on.

There's serious concern that high tolls will keep drivers out of the tunnel and clog up Interstate 5 and surface streets instead.

The state expects drivers to pay for $200 million of the tunnel's $3.1 billion cost.

So how much will that work out to for each trip someone makes through the tunnel? One proposal put the toll at $1.25 for peak travel times and $1 for mid-day drivers. The state's advisory committee on tolling meets Tuesday afternoon to debate this.

But before any tolling can take place, there needs to be a tunnel for drivers to use and right now Bertha is still stuck. A mystery object, later determined to be a steel pipe, idled the giant tunnel boring machine back in early December.

We've now learned that pipe was installed after the Nisqually Quake.

Crews have been digging and filling shafts to get down there and clear out the pipe, but when the project manager updated Seattle City Council members on it this week, he admitted that they hadn't yet learned anything substantial from the shaft drilling.

In another controversy surrounding this project, the state says it might reduce its payments to the Seattle Tunnel Partners, based on a federal review that shows the group is not hiring enough female and minority subcontractors. Investigators say disadvantaged business enterprises hiring is only at 2 percent right now - far short of the 8 percent goal set for it.