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Bertha’s Big Bust and Why Even Though Mountain Accord May Want A Tunnel It May Not Be That Easy

The word tunnel has taken on a different connotation since the Mountain Accord came to town. Mention the word in your local coffee shop and we bet some voices will get raised. Yet, we haven’t heard much discussion over whether a tunnel is actually feasible. It seems that people assume that since the mining industry did it years ago, it’s no big deal. Yet just like going to the moon, where many people say we no longer have the technical capability to put a person on the moon, we wonder if digging a tunnel from Alta to Brighton to Park City would just take the snap of our fingers and a few million dollars.

Enter the tale of Big Bertha, Seattle’s $80 million tunnel drill that gave up digging after just 1,000 feet of her 9,000 foot mission. She now has to be craned out of her tunnel, 120 feet deep in the ground, one piece at a time, in order to be fixed. The tunnel was scheduled to take about 3 years and now looks like it will take at least 5 years to complete… and over $2 billion.

It appears she ran into trouble with type of the soil and rock she was devouring and she finally just gave up when her teeth clogged and her seals started to bust. The article describing her adventure is a great read. It just doesn’t deal with the tunnel but also talks about traffic flow, gargantuan projects, and urban planning. Some of the quotes, that seem to apply to our situation include:

“Megaprojects almost always fall short of their promises—costing too much, delivering underwhelming benefits, or both. Yet from the London-­Paris Chunnel to Boston’s Big Dig, cities still fall for them, seduced by new technologies and the lure of the perfect fix. A mix of factors has given Seattle a particularly acute sense of angst.”

“Moon’s[a Seattle urban planner] coalition said Seattle should follow New Urbanist examples, such as Seoul, Milwaukee, and Portland, Ore., that replaced highways with smaller surface streets, public parks, and dedicated lanes for mass transit and biking. Instead of seeing gridlock, those places found car trips declined as people opted for other means of transport or changed their plans and didn’t travel as far.

“Bent Flyvbjerg, a professor at Oxford’s Saïd School of Business, has followed Bertha from afar. His research on megaprojects has been cited by both backers and critics of the tunnel. Nine times out of 10, massive infrastructure jobs go over budget, he says. Tunnels on average cost 34 percent more than anticipated. No region is better at predicting costs, and estimates over the past century haven’t become more accurate, his data show.”

This isn’t to say that a 4-6 mile (as the crow flies) tunnel couldn’t be built here. However, now we now don’t take that outcome as given. It’s not just a question of should we. It’s also a question of could we. We still believe that most people don’t want the tunnel. Now, if we add on to that the by asking “could we even build it?” Then, “if we start to build it, how much more will it cost than we think” it just leads to an obvious answer.

Can we please just implement Zions Park style busing in the Cottonwoods and limit the number of riders per day up the canyons? There you go. Watershed preserved. That’s what this is all about … right? That should save us about $5 billion.

Please take a chance to read the article, Stuck in Seattle — The Aggravating Adventures of a Tunnel Drill, if you are interested.






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