When the Beverly Hills School District and numerous Beverly Hills residents objected in 2011 to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s altered plans to tunnel under Beverly Hills High School rather than under Santa Monica Boulevard as originally planned, Metro apologists wrote off the safety concerns as “alarmist” or even “hysterical.”
While the marvels of modern technology leave me personally convinced that basically anything can be built safely, I had mainly taken issue with other aspects of Metro’s bait and switch – such as good government and respect for local control. Yet I also understand that there are inherent risks in doing any kind of construction. Wayne Gretzky once famously noted, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” True that. But there are also some shots you wouldn’t want to take, especially if there are other, better options.
When some of the Beverly Hills “alarmists” pointed out construction accidents that occurred when Metro’s Red Line was being built and the presence of methane gas around the proposed Purple Line construction area, the Metro apologists were quick to note that “technological advances would allow it to tunnel safely.” It was pointed out that the Purple Line would be constructed using the latest in closed-face tunnel-boring machines, slickly referred to as TBMs by the hipster transit crowd. These babies can tunnel under a Jenga convention and leave a nickel on the winning stack standing on its edge.
Fast-forward to 2014 and Seattle in which Big Bertha, the world’s biggest and most technologically advanced TBM has been struttin’ her stuff to construct a two-mile traffic tunnel. Big Bertha should provide easy proof of concept for all tunnel skeptics, n’est-ce pas?
For those of you who haven’t read about Big Bertha’s fate, she’s currently stuck a lot more than six feet under Seattle. She hasn’t moved in almost a year. The attempt to rescue Big Bertha has not only been ridiculously costly and disruptive, but because of settlement connected with the dewatering to complete the complicated rescue mission, it also might have long-term impacts on some of the historical structures in the area.
I’ve asked Metro the simple question: “Why couldn’t it happen here?” The only answer I’ve gotten is: Big Bertha is much larger than the TBMs that will be used here and the geologic conditions in Seattle are “more variable.”
Not exactly reassuring. After only tunneling a thousand feet, Big Bad Bertha was stopped in her tracks by … a metal pipe. One would think that the Mother of all TBMs would better be able to eat up a scrawny metal pipe than Metro’s junior version which is “only” one-third the diameter.
When it was previously pointed out that there are numerous capped wells and metal casings under the Beverly Hills High School campus, many of which are unmapped and not all of which are detectable by ground-penetrating radar, Metro’s glib response was: “No problem for today’s TBMs.” Uh, well, OK. But wouldn’t it simply be a lot easier and less risky to take the original route down the public right-of-way, i.e., Santa Monica Boulevard (which, it has since been shown, does not have faulting that would preclude safe tunneling)? Should Metro’s Little Bertha get stuck under the high school, the only recourse would be – as they are so unsuccessfully attempting in Seattle – to build a shaft down through the middle of the campus to try to fix the face of the TBM from the outside.
If a Big Bertha-like incident happens at any point along the route where there is ground water, then Metro would have to try to dewater the area to allow for the rescue, with the potential for destabilizing surrounding buildings – as is the case in Seattle. Historic structures, such as the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, would be particularly susceptible to the settling and destabilization caused by dewatering.
Metro claims that more diverse geological conditions make Seattle a trickier place to tunnel, but that seems a bit optimistic considering our region’s unique seismic and methane challenges. Can you say (or sing, if you’re Freddy Martin): “La Brea Tar Pits”?
While I’m not an engineer, the reassurances from Metro staff engineers seem weak and self-serving. You can be sure that the engineers in Seattle also said: “It’s perfectly safe” before they gave Big Bertha her coming-out party, a “celebration” incidentally that the Purple Line Facebook page felt worthy to note back in July 2013.
But now Big Bertha herself has spoken, and people – especially those connected with transit agencies – should listen. The lessons to be learned from Big Bertha should be met with more than just a knee-jerk “What, me worry?” response. It’s time for Metro to seriously revisit its decision to tunnel under a former oil field, which for Little Bertha could well turn out to be a veritable mine field of unmapped wildcat well casings.
John A. Mirisch is a city councilman in Beverly Hills, where he served as mayor.
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