reBertha: What To Do With Our Very Large Hole

photo modified under Creative Commons. Original available on flickr from the WaDOT (
As you’ve probably heard, our tortured tunneling titan, Bertha “the world’s largest and most expensive tunneling machine,” hasn’t moved in more than a month.

Armchair speculation says she’s likely over budget and certainly behind schedule.

I think it’s safe to say things are a mess.  Many of us alternative transportation nerds advocates have been against this mega project debacle since the beginning.  A mere $2.8B to move some cars at roughly the same speed and efficiency as if we tore down the doomed Alaska Way Viaduct and did nothing? “Sure that sounds like a great investment (air quotes over the great),” was my reaction all along.

Tweet: Bertha's Budget Busted

Nobody official wants to speak publicly about the growing quagmire, probably because the State and the contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners, are busy lining up their litigation teams for the lawsuit(s) of the century.

Meanwhile the same state leaders glady supporting the motor-vehicle-only tunnel also think that investing in bike and transit infrastructure is too expensive and/or too socialist. Right….

So it’s tempting (oh so tempting!) to play I-told-you-so and draft an initiative to require all State Legislators to write suitably conciliatory, daisy-scented, “I’m sorry” notes to hero tunnel obstructionist/former Mayor McGuin.

Bertha's Junk. A creative commons photo from the Washington State Department of Transportation

Bertha’s Junk

As much as I’d like to see how a liberal Tim Eyeman-style effort would play out in Ephrata, we’re instead going to join the moral-high ground freshly shoveled in by Tom over at the Seattle Bike Blog. In a post Thursday morning entitled “We can do better things with our new downtown tunnel,” he’s calling for a positive spin to install on our sinking Titantic.

Think of it as a exercise in disaster-recovery planning—a waterfront “reBerth-a,” so to speak. Once the state doffs its costly muddy boots and slinks away from another Seattle problem, how can we re-imagine a worthwhile future for our 1000′ long, very expensive hole in the ground? How can we reBertha our way out of this mess?

Take it away, Tom:

And hey, all is not lost. We’ll have a space 54 feet wide and 1,000 feet long under downtown. That actually sounds like a totally awesome opportunity for a fantastic and perhaps even iconic urban space.

How amazing would it be to have a truly underground concert venue (see photo above [in post])? Or how about a museum or events center? The new Seattle Underground right next door to the old one. Maybe the extra revenue from tourism draw and door prices could even pay the state back for some or all of what it has already spent on the project?

Awesome reBertha ideas, Tom. The state has given us lemons, so let’s make some Bertha-sized lemonade, er… lemon-aid?

A symbol of change

According to the Seattle Times, our fair city is bogged down in a hopeless, viscous (cue alarming Fox News voice)  War! On! Cars! I don’t really buy the premise, but hey, we’re imagineering so let’s roll with it.

Right. We hate cars. And we also like to think we’re as ironic and hip as as other cool cities—at least as hip as our neighbors to the south. So what if we were to embrace a swords to plowshares angle and repurpose the failure of this old-paradigm, massive-works project to support active and healthy lifestyles?

Ironic and poetic, right? Suck that Brooklyn!

Active Underground Imagineering

My first reBertha is a simple indoor outdoor underground bike/skate park. Sure, it’s not as out-there as, say, digging a giant tunnel under a city just so waterfront developers can make a ton of money—but that doesn’t mean a bike park wouldn’t be cool. Imagine Portland’s Lumberyard and the I-5 Colonade combined. But bigger. Way bigger.

PDX Lumberyard bike park media photo

Or maybe a bike track? (an actual track … not that misnamed-though-awesome “cycle track” infrastructure us bike dorks confuse the general populace with). The Marymoor velodrome is a regional gem on a lovely summer evening. But the usable season is small, the outdoor, low-bank track is hard to keep maintained, and well, it’s in Redmond.

velodrome by flickr member Graeme Maclean; _gee_ (creative commons by: 2.0 LicenseThe Bertahdrome, meanwhile, could be rocking all year long. It’s already got massive built-in banked walls (think Wall of Death, but pedal-powered) and close proximity to thousands of cycling fans who could now walk to the velodrome at night (and home again after too many PBRs)!


I’d be remiss not to include some non-bikey reBerthas. What about a mega half-pipe for the skateboard types? If Redbull is willing to pay millions for one  little jump and more millions to build Shaun White’s private half-pipe, how much would they pay for naming rights to the exclusive RedBull Big-Air Berthadrome?

The No-wheel Crowd Can Play, too

Though I can’t personally can’t wrap my imagineering around why, my sources tell me some people in Seattle actually enjoy running. I’ve seen them trodding around Greenlake on sunny days, so I suppose there’s some truth in there. But where to they go when it rains? Treadmills? Yuck. Couch? More likely. Imagine how these atheletes would take to a 24-hour, warm, dry, lighted indoorunderground running track and gym? Heck, for the cost of the overruns thus far, we could provide free gym membership and personal training at Big Bertha Gym and Fitness for the entire downtown workforce!


Owing to the waterfront location, it seems appropriate to consider some aqua-friendly reBertha ideas. I can’t imagine there being much difficulty in turning the tunnel into a tank. Construct a few short walls (surely there’s some spare concrete remaining from the 9/10ths of the tunnel we haven’t built), pump in some filtered seawater, and we’ve got a ginormous pool. Potential uses boggle the mind: Small-boat sailing lessons with wind provided by WaDOT bigwigs, or rowing lanes for the Husky Crew (forget about the staid old Windermere cup — the RedBull Regatta will be the only crew race in the nation a 54′ half pipe!). It’s doesn’t have be all-extreme—imagine the popularity of a simple, though exceptionally large, pool. Where else in the world can you get a 1000′ underground swim workout with no flip turns required?

Embracing our Bertha Beneath

Eventually we’ll have to deal with Bertha herself. The tunnel experts tell us she can’t back up. Of course, they also said she’d be able to, you know, tunnel, so… But let’s just suppose they’re right: No backward and now no forward either. Which means whatever use we find for the big hole, should also include plans for Bertha herself.

Luckily I have lots of understanding around re-purposing abandoned digging devices— one of my kids’ (and to be truthful, mine as well) favorite childhood books was Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton.

Image From Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel By Virginia Lee Burton. Captured and used under fair use..But you should really purchase a copy and read it to any small children within hearing distance.

Stay with me here—Virginia Lee Burton has this abandoned digger thing nailed. In fact, so many parallels exist between the beloved childhood steam-shovel fiction and our current tunnel-digging reality that I’m temped to elevate Ms. Burton from her status of Dead but Fondly Remembered Literary Treasure to Potentially Alive Time Traveling Space Alien and Literary Treasure.

In the strangely prescient story, the affable heavy-equipment operator, Mike and his faithful steam shovel, Mary Anne,  represent the past, or old paradigm. They spend the course of their adventure trying to show they still have a place in the future. This climaxes in a challenge where they actually attempt to demonstrate their value by battling the modern world—represented by the pure speed of diesel-powered diggers. In another weirdly accurate twist, Mike and Mary Anne’s contest is the product of a sleazy government official, who rigs the game to make sure no matter what happens, the government lines its pockets.

Trippy eh?

Against huge odds, Mike and Mary Anne take the bait and bury themselves in the dirty business. The more they dig, the more attention they gather. The contest takes on a circus atmosphere. The townspeople start believing in the viability of sticking with Mike and Mary Anne in a modern world.

Bertha and Mike Mulligan (Bertha photo shared under CC by @ WaDOT (<a href=""></a>). Mike Mulligan photo used under FairUse.

A circus digging atmosphere, now and then

Look familiar?

(spoiler alert!) When the dust settles, we see Mike and Mary Anne parked victoriously in the bowels of the earth. They won, they won!

While the government, business leaders, and all the regular townspeople are cheering their success, Burton appropriately chooses a child to deliver the reality of the situation: “how are they going to get out?”

So did they win? Mike and Mary Anne are stuck, with no way to get out. The lifestyle they sought so hard to preserve has marooned them in a hole of their own creation. And there they’ll sit, like an half-empty tunnel saddled with really expensive tolls, while the modern world moves forward without them.

Making the Most of Mike and Mary Anne

Image From Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel By Virginia Lee Burton. Captured and used under fair use.

Another spoiler: Because it’s a kids book, Burton gifted us a happy ending. The town builds its new hall over the top of the stranded diggers. Mary Anne becomes the furnace boiler and Mike takes employment as the janitor. Hooray! New purpose for old tech and new employment for dying careers.

We can leverage Burton’s positive example as a model for redeveloping the SeaTownHole around over Bertha’s expensive carcass. The boiler thing is a good start. Surely Bertha must have some heat-generation capabilities—not to mention miles of pumps and pipes we can use to fill the pool and fizz the Jacuzzi.

Unlike Mary Anne, Bertha contains lots of up-to-date technology. And have I mentioned she’s huge? Cities all over the country fought for their share of another piece of large antiquated tech—the space shuttle. Winning NASA blessing was expensive and required building a specialized display/storage structure. But even with the hassles and the cost, competition for the shuttle was fierce—how else are you going to generate tourist dollars and build a world-class technology museum without a giant industrial castoff?

Hmmmm…..I wonder….

Guess what, Bertha is even more rare than the shuttle. She’s the only oneHer software, and electronics, and other gizmos are positively more modern than the shuttle. Plus she already comes with a roof over her head, power and plumbing. In fact there’s so much good stuff it’s almost like getting her for free$2.8 billion.

Our New Underground Technology Campus
Image From Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel By Virginia Lee Burton. Captured and used under fair use.

A new home for Mike and Mary Anne

The Pacific Science Center could take over running Bertha U. If you’ve been there more than once, you’ll recognize the Center could use some bigger, flashier, more hands-on exhibits. And what’s more hands-on than playing under the earth with the world’s largest tunneling machine?  (Bonus: The Hobbit 3 in IMAX on a 1000′ screen. Whoa).

Keeping to our “active” theme, Bertha U program participants could begin their day at the Seattle Center Campus before suiting up in spelunking gear for a below-ground hike to their new indoor/outdoor campus. Participants would be fit, smart AND know lots about local geology. Sure, the hiking path portion would require completion of a tiny .9 mile segment of tunnel to help connect Seattle Center to Bertha. But seriously, what could go wrong?



Now I’d like to invite you to strap on your imagineering ears and tell us how you’d make lemon-aid from world’s largest broken juicer. Share your thoughts in the comments, or over on Seattle Bike Blog, or elsewhere on the web (with the #reBertha hashtag, too!).


9 responses to “reBertha: What To Do With Our Very Large Hole

  1. you two are the best! what a teriffic re imaging of the space. Personally I can’t wait until Bertha is under the viaduct. My understanding is that theyill be only be fifteen feet apart. Can you imagine the transportaion chaos if the viaduct collapses? Mike McGinn is my anti-tunnel hero, also.
    Marge Evans

  2. I like the pool/tank idea quite a bit. Think of how many SCUBA divers we could train at once! Like Nemo 33 — — but horizontal & 10x bigger. Or we could succeed where the Monterrey Bay Aquarium has failed: keeping pelagic predators like great white sharks happy. I mean, a 300 meter tank might be big enough for a sperm whale and a few giant squid!

    • heh, you said Sperm-whale!

      Srsly, thanks Scott. What kind of lighting requirements would the sharks need? Would it have to simulate daylight? And could they hang with the whale? I know at least one kid who’d gladly ride his bicycle down to the hole in the city to check out giant aquatic life!

  3. I love your parallels to Mike Mulligan! Scary, but the stories align more than is comfortable. I like the “out of the tunnel” thinking!

  4. Andy in Germany

    In Stuttgart (Germany) we already have one half finished tunnel which apparently is used as a concert venue. Each to their own.

    Ironically we’ve also got a vast underground boondoggle of our own going on with the state trying to rebuild the main railway station underground, ninety degrees to the present one, and half the size with tunnels in all directions through very unstable rock. What could possibly go wrong?

    • Andy– so great of you to stop by! It’s nice (or is it?) to know tunnelling boondoggles are an international phenomenon.

      Indeed, what could go wrong?

  5. Pingback: Why Seattle should stop waiting for the tunnel and tear down the viaduct now | Seattle Bike Blog

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