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Cross section of the tunnel lining Big Bertha Long shot of Big Bertha

Under Seattle’s streets

One of two major north-south corridors through Seattle, the Alaskan Way Viaduct went into service in 1953. This double-decked elevated section of State Route 99 runs along Elliott Bay in Seattle’s downtown and Industrial District.

We played a key role in guiding the alignment of the tunnel. Avoiding the original narrow corridor through the historic Pioneer District, the new alignment reduces the risk and cost of tunneling in an area of poor fill soils and debris.


Fifty years later, the viaduct was carrying more than 100,000 vehicles per day — but its vulnerabilities had become obvious. A similar viaduct in Oakland was destroyed by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and in 2001 the Nisqually earthquake damaged the viaduct and its supporting seawall. Engineers said the viaduct was within a few seconds of complete collapse.

Repairs to the viaduct, well into its 75-year design life, cost more than US$14 million. The seawall was in disrepair, and the soil it supported around the viaduct’s foundations was subject to liquefaction.


In 2007, officials decided to replace the southern end of the viaduct while continuing to consider options for replacing the waterfront section. Foundations for the new side-by-side roadway were sunk up to 260 feet deep for added stability, and wider lanes and shoulders were provided.

In January 2009 officials from the state, county, city, and port recommended a bored tunnel to replace the waterfront section of the viaduct — the only option that would allow the state highway to remain open during construction. The following year, it was decided to bore a tunnel 2 miles long and 57 feet in diameter, requiring the construction of the world’s largest tunnel boring machine.

Working with the Washington Department of Transportation, we served as project management assistant consultant. Our first major tasks included:

  • Developing a project management plan mandated by the Federal Highway Administration
  • Creating a project management template to be used by WSDOT on this and potentially other mega projects
  • Design review of deliverables
  • Development of the program management process using best-in-breed software tools

We played a key role in guiding the alignment of the tunnel. Avoiding the original narrow corridor through the historic Pioneer District, the new alignment reduces the risk and cost of beginning the tunnel in an area of poor fill soils and debris, where areas of Puget Sound have been filled for waterfront development. We helped evaluate contractor proposals before the execution of a design-build contract.


The tunnel boring machine, named Bertha, completed its journey in 2017 and the new double-deck tunnel – officially the State Route 99 tunnel – opened to traffic in February 2019. About 90,000 vehicles pass through every day. And, with the viaduct gone and traffic underground, citizens can now reclaim and enjoy the streets of downtown Seattle.

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