Volume 15 | Issue 1 | Year 2012

When it comes to transportation infrastructure, Matt Preedy, of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), provides the 30,000-foot perspective and then goes right down into the weeds. First, looking at the larger picture, he says, “Much of the United States’ infrastructure was built 50 to 60 years ago. The challenge for the nation, and for our state, is to find effective ways to maintain and sustain everything we have, in terms of safety and operability.”
Now into the weeds: For WSDOT, this isn’t a theoretical proposition. It is actively addressing the issue, and is proving itself up to the challenge – as underscored by the SR 99 Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement. A current and complex project, it involves replacing the viaduct with a bored tunnel that will run beneath downtown Seattle. (Initially, the viaduct construction resulted from the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1944, which provided funding for the planning and building of urban highways.) Looking at the microscopic – and microcosmic – picture, Preedy says, “improvement provides a better connection.”

In Washington’s case, this means a nexus between the new SR 99 roadway that runs south of the city’s downtown section with an avenue to the north. To use a medical metaphor, it’s an artery clearing operation.

According to WSDOT, the viaduct plays a major role in sustaining the state’s economy, which depends upon the population’s ability to travel to and through Seattle. Equally important, the viaduct is vulnerable to damage from earthquakes, which means great risk to lives and property. Further, simple wear and tear has made the viaduct increasingly expensive to maintain. Structure replacement appeared to be the only viable solution.

Specifically, the envisioned tunnel – which is rapidly becoming reality, thanks to the project being ahead of schedule – moves the state highway underground, reconnects the street grid at the ends of the tunnel, and removes the viaduct along Seattle’s downtown waterfront. The project will not only provide a vital route; it was will open up space for waterfront redevelopment.

WSDOT has proved well ahead of the curve when it comes to infrastructure issues, as Preedy relates with some project background: “Again, gazing down from the 30,000-foot perspective, it all started around 1999. We had a team look closely at the structure, which was then about 50 years old, because it was showing signs of deterioration. Analysis led us to consider what kind of work needed to be done. Two years later, the region experienced an earthquake. While the quake was small, damage was significant. That alerted us to the structure’s vulnerability.”

Imagine if the earthquake was major, with a high Richter magnitude. WSDOT considered that scenario. “That 2001 quake made us get serious about looking at replacement options,” recalls Preedy, who is the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Program deputy administrator. “That process took several years, even up to 2011. All the while, we considered a variety of options, which involved tunnels, bridges and roadways. We came up with about eight options. We narrowed these down to surface-elevated and tunnel options. But at the end of the day, agencies liked the tunnel replacement option.”

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), WSDOT and the City of Seattle released the project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement in July 2011. The FHWA signed the Record of Decision in August 2011.

Moving forward, WSDOT engaged with a newly formed entity, called the Seattle Tunnel Partners, which serves as the design-build contractor for the SR 99 tunnel. The arrangement proved attractive, as the partnership combines project design and construction into one contract.

The main partners include Dragados USA and Tutor Perini Corporation. “Dragados’ primary specialty is tunneling,” reveals Preedy. “It has completed very large, world record-setting bored tunnel projects across the globe.”

Indeed, the company – whose parent is headquartered in Spain – delivered a comparable 49.5 diameter Madrid M-30 highway tunnel in Spain, according to WSDOT. “Also, the firm has brought into our project the people who performed the previous successful projects,” says Preedy, “and that is very important.”

Along with Tutor Perini, the partnership also includes Frank Coluccio Construction, Mowat Construction, HNTB Corporation, and the Hitachi Zosen Corporation, which has designed and built the project’s tunnel boring technology. This partnership earned the contract, as it indicated that it could provide all of the necessary elements – including the tunnel boring equipment (as well as the capability to bore the tunnel), the necessary ventilation, and the emergency and electrical systems, among others. Further – and of course – it offered an attractive price tag, which aligned with the estimated $1.96 billion project budget. That amount includes design, right of way, construction management, risk and inflation. The project has committed funding from the state gas tax and local and federal sources, as well as toll funding.

Preedy emphasizes that the project proceeds at an ahead-of-schedule pace. Lawmakers came on board (in 2009), the contractor contract has been signed (in 2011), work has already begun, and the projected completed date (2015) may even be pushed up a year (or two). Indeed, Seattle Tunnel Partners has promised WSDOT that it will complete the project at least a year ahead of schedule.

The end result will be:

  • Improved safety – the tunnel won’t be as vulnerable to earthquakes as the Alaskan Way Viaduct;
  • Enhanced mobility – the replacement tunnel ensures that capacity is maintained as the region grows. “We’re not really looking to increase capacity,” says Preedy. “Rather, we’re looking to enhance capacity.”

The timeline is amazing, when you consider all that the WSDOT is involved in. “We’re moving forward quite well, but the tunnel project is but one of many,” Preedy points out. “One of the biggest, along with the viaduct replacement, involves the replacement of the Southern Mile, which entails a two-mile elevated bridge and a 2012 endpoint goal. We’re ahead of that goal, as we are on all projects.”

That’s thanks to yet another contractor that WSDOT has hired: Skanska USA Civil – a New York-headquartered construction and development enterprise with extensive experience in civil infrastructure and commercial development.

“They have performed for us a very outstanding job on a very challenging project,” says Preedy, “and they have proven to be very effective, because they offer a collaborative and solutions oriented approach. They have continually found ways to reduce project budget, improve project schedule and achieve better end products – all better than what we initially envisioned. So, with this collaboration, we’re looking at a project completed sixth months early and under budget.”

When it comes to budget and schedule, collaborating entities often tread a high wire. But again, WSDOT recognizes – and embraces – the challenges.

“We know what we have to do,” says Preedy. “When it comes to infrastructure, we are very conscious about our public duty.”

Try and find a better mission statement.

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