Drilling at Seattle tunnel project to resume

OLYMPIA — Longshoremen picketing the site of Seattle’s $2 billion tunnel project have agreed to allow work at the site to proceed while they continue to seek a resolution to a dispute over a handful of jobs at the waterfront site, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Tuesday.

Inslee said that the president of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 19 agreed in a phone call Monday night to dismantle the picket line that has been up since Aug. 20 while talks continue with the contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners. Inslee said that the boring machine, known as “Bertha,” could be running within the next few days.

The tunnel project is part of the state’s overall $3.1 billion plan replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the double deck highway along the downtown Seattle waterfront.

“I have been increasingly frustrated by this situation,” Inslee told reporters during a news conference. “I could not allow this dispute to continue to put stresses and reduced progress on this key link to our economic growth.”

Inslee said he met with the union and contractor Monday, but that it was clear they were at an impasse and not able to reach agreement. Inslee said he later called union president Cameron Williams to ask him to take down the picket line while both sides continue to seek a permanent agreement, and Williams agreed.

Inslee thanked Williams and the union for “this show of good faith.”

Messages left Tuesday with the union and with Seattle Tunnel Partners were not immediately returned.

Boring at the tunnel project began at the end of July, as the world’s largest tunneling machine started digging a pathway that will ultimately carry vehicles under downtown. The longshoremen, who view the waterfront positions as their territory, are upset about four jobs that involve loading excavated dirt onto a barge. They believe a contract signed earlier this year gives them the barge-loading jobs.

Officials with Seattle Tunnel Partners have said that the contract signed in April was done under duress because the ILWU was refusing to offload the boring machine unless officials agreed to provide them the jobs now in dispute. An arbitrator ultimately ruled that the jobs should go to building trades workers under a larger project labor agreement.

“This has been proven to be a difficult issue, despite the small number of jobs involved,” Inslee said. “There are principals involved that are important to all sides that need to be respected. But at the same time, we cannot and we will not lose sight of the importance of the viaduct replacement project to the economy, not just of Seattle or King County but to the whole state of Washington.”

The tunnel boring project is expected to take about 14 months to make a nearly 2-mile journey, with the machine surfacing near south Lake Union. Vehicles are expected to begin using the tunnel by late 2015.

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