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July 18, 2013

Waterfront tunnel: Small firms get a piece of huge tunnel contract

  • Savage Logistics is transporting concrete segments nearly 50 miles to the launch pit. They are so big that only two can fit on one truck.
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    Salina Savage knows that the SR 99 tunnel her firm is helping to build will be just under 2 miles long when it opens in late 2015.

    But the finished product is too far down the road to think about. Right now she’s focused on the 47 miles of highway that separate the tunnel work zone at the south end of downtown Seattle from Puyallup, where the tunnel’s future walls are being manufactured.

    As co-owner of Savage Logistics, its Savage’s job to ensure the walls — made up of precast, curved concrete segments that fit together to form 56-foot-diameter rings — make it safely from the manufacturing facility to the south entrance of the tunnel, where the world’s largest tunneling machine will start digging beneath Seattle in a matter of weeks.

    Photos courtesy of WSDOT [enlarge]
    Bertha is so big it will be able to place two segments at once. Most tunneling machines have one segment erector to construct the liner rings.

    As Savage can attest, moving nearly 14,500 tunnel segments is a challenging task. Each one is 2 feet thick, weighs more than 38,000 pounds and must make the trek north by the end of tunneling. The segments are so large that each truck can carry only two at a time. That equates to more than 6,600 truckloads and 620,000 total miles traveled by the time the tunnel is finished — quite the haul for a smaller firm like Savage Logistics. But you won’t find Savage complaining.

    “This kind of job is a real shot in the arm for a small business like ours,” Savage said. “We feel blessed to be a part of something so big.”

    Bigness, it seems, is the defining characteristic of this project. It starts with the five-story-tall tunneling machine and everything else follows suit. For firms like Richland-based Savage Logistics, that bigness leads directly to jobs — six new employees to be exact — that will grow the company by a third this year.

    Each segment is 2 feet thick and weighs more than 38,000 pounds.

    The implications for Washington state are even broader. At its peak, the tunnel project, combined with all of our efforts to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, will support more than 3,900 jobs. Of the 171 firms under contract with Seattle Tunnel Partners, WSDOT’s contractor for the tunnel project, 138 are based in Washington. That’s a lot of local jobs to help boost the state’s economy while improving vital transportation infrastructure.

    Count Kirkland’s Overlake Oil among the local firms in the mix. Overlake will supply much of the greases, lubricants and hydraulic fluids that are essential to the tunneling operation.

    Founded in 1947, Overlake has endured the changing petroleum industry by lending its expertise in addition to its products, said Jim Jessen, third-generation president of the company.

    The firm’s work on the SR 99 tunnel is the latest in a series of tunnel-related jobs that started with King County’s Brightwater tunnel project. Seattle’s recent tunneling boom, which includes multiple Sound Transit tunnels, is opening up a new niche for Overlake.

    “We certainly hope this work will lead to other things,” Jessen said. “A project like this is right in our wheelhouse. It’s exactly what we love to do.”

    More than 6,600 loads of concrete segments will be trucked to the job site. The operation will require 620,000 total miles of driving.

    Both Savage and Jessen say their companies have had to adapt to the unique conditions of the project.

    For Savage, the changes include new equipment. Since its founding six years ago, the firm has focused almost exclusively on hauling away hazardous waste from the Hanford nuclear facility. Because moving tunnel segments is a much different type of load, Savage is in the process of purchasing seven new trucks. The firm has also brought aboard its first union employees.

    Overlake, which typically has up to 16 employees, has changed too as it carves out its own piece of the tunnel project’s $1.35 billion contract. Among other unusual liquids, Seattle Tunnel Partners has requested organic esters — similar to vegetable or canola oil — for use in the tunneling machine. Overlake, Jessen said, is happy to oblige.

    “Our success will always be defined by how well we can differentiate ourselves in the marketplace,” he said.

    For those of us at WSDOT, a comment like that leads to some vital questions: What could be more different than keeping the world’s largest tunneling machine stocked up with grease? And what could be more important than improving our roads while putting Washingtonians to work?

    Linea Laird is administrator of the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Program.

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