Bored Subway Tunnels – Are They Problem Free? Will a Broadway SkyTrain subway be Another Cambie St. Fiasco?


The SkyTrain Lobby and many Vancouver politicians are claiming that a Broadway subway tunnel will be bored in stead of cut-and-cover, eliminating the many problems caused to those living or have businesses adjacent to the subway route, thus eliminating protracted litigation for compensation. The problem of course is a bored tunneling causes it own set of problems and may pose a serious threat to many older and some not so old, building’s foundations. Some of the problems expected to be encountered by businesses and residents along the proposed Broadway/UBC subway will be  cracked floors and foundations, sinkholes large enough to swallowed driveways, pollution, homes flooded with sewage, etc.

Despite the myth that a bored subway tunnel under Broadway will be problem free unlike a cut-and-cover subway, they are not and have a host of their own unique and expensive problems. Knowing how niggardly TransLink and the provincial government are paying compensation to those affected by subway construction on Cambie Street, a bored Broadway subway tunnel may leave thousands of property owners with very expensive repair bills and years of expensive litigation.

Collapsed subway tunnel in China

From the Seattle Times –

Bridgewater tunnel likely causing homes’ troubles

By Keith Ervin

Seattle Times

Tom and Jan Glithero were pointing out the recently discovered cracks in their reinforced-concrete patio the other day when Tom called out, “Oh, guess what? Here’s another one! So there’s four cracks now — great.”

“The more we look, the more we find,” Jan added.

The Bothell couple first found long, wide cracks in their garage and driveway the middle of last year.

But it wasn’t until November, after they saw hairline cracks between the bricks of their living-room fireplace, that it occurred to them that a tunnel excavated beneath their backyard for the Brightwater sewer-plant pipeline might be causing the ground to settle.

Since then, engineers and insurance adjusters have made repeat visits to the Glitheros’ split-level house and installed instruments to determine whether the house is continuing to settle.

“We’re working with the assumption it is attributable to Brightwater construction,” said King County Wastewater Treatment Director Christie True.

The Glitheros are among dozens of residents of King and Snohomish counties who have been affected by the $1.8 billion sewer project that began in 2006 and won’t be completed until 2012, more than a year behind schedule.

The 13-mile tunnel will carry treated wastewater from the Brightwater plant north of Woodinville to Puget Sound off Point Wells in Shoreline. King County is responding to complaints even as Sound Transit prepares to dig twin light-rail tunnels between downtown Seattle and the University of Washington and the state Department of Transportation designs a large-diameter tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Neighbors of Brightwater have complained of construction noises late into the night, cracked floors and foundations, a sinkhole that swallowed a driveway, pollution of a creek, homes flooded with sewage and wells gone dry.

One worker died in a construction accident, and two of four tunnel-boring machines have been idled since last June while undergoing repairs more than 300 feet underground. The broken-down machines have slowed the project and will drive up costs by a yet-unknown amount.

The state Department of Labor and Industries fined tunnel contractor Vinci/Parsons RCI/Frontier-Kemper $6,600 for workplace-safety violations after worker David Keith was killed by a steel beam that fell from a crane at the North Kenmore tunnel portal in November 2006. Keith’s family is also suing contractors and the county.

Most of the complaints have been filed by people who live along the tunnel route. The tunnel runs under Northeast 195th Street and other roads, and directly beneath 147 private properties, officials said.

To date, King County and its insurance carrier have paid more than $400,000 in construction-related damage to homeowners, businesses and the county itself.

“I would say for a project of this size and the amount of liability insurance we carry, the loss is very small,” True said. The costliest project in county history has mostly gone well, officials say. Construction of the treatment plant itself is on schedule, the eastern end of the tunnel is complete, the west portion is almost done, and a mile-long outfall pipe was installed faster and cheaper than expected.

But for some neighbors of the project, it’s been anything from a nuisance to a nightmare. Several said they were initially impressed by the quick response of the county and its contractors to their complaints, but then grew frustrated by lengthy delays in resolving problems.

Here are some of the things neighbors have endured:

• The well that provides water to Jorge and Shirley Landa’s Bothell house and dog kennels stopped working when the pump burned out. A replacement pump also burned out before they realized sand was clogging the filter. Then the water level dropped and the well went dry.

The Landas also noticed that Horse Creek, which runs through their property, was behaving strangely. “You could sit in the car and you could hear the creek bubbling up like Old Faithful,” Shirley said.

The state Department of Ecology concluded that the creek was repeatedly muddied and its water chemistry changed over a three-month period by compressed air that worked its way from a tunnel-boring machine through 160 feet of soil to Horse Creek during scheduled maintenance.

The Landas’ well is back in operation but exhibiting new problems they’re trying to understand.

• Marlene and Eldon Berg’s previously quiet Kenmore neighborhood became a noisy construction site, with truck engines revving, backup beepers sounding and metal banging on metal when contractors began digging a tunnel portal. Windows in their home rattled and floors shook when a boring machine chewed its way out of the portal. After the Bergs’ well ran dry, the county hooked them up to the city water system.

• Ray Ames was asleep when his wife, Mary, woke him up and showed him a brownish liquid flooding the kitchen and pouring out of the toilet. Raw sewage had backed up into the house because of pump problems on a Kenmore sewer line that was being redirected to the Brightwater plant.

Two years later the county paid more than $70,000 for repairs and legal fees.

• Pauline Chihara stepped out of her Kenmore home early one morning and discovered her driveway had fallen into a 30-foot-wide, 15-foot-deep sinkhole. County contractors quickly filled the hole and did a temporary repaving job. The ground had caved in because a tunneling machine removed too much soil 150 feet beneath the house.

That was in March 2009. As for a permanent fix to the driveway and sidewalk, Chihara said, “They said they were waiting for warm weather. Warm weather came and passed. … I wish they would just hurry up and do it. I don’t know what they’re waiting for.”

County spokeswoman Annie Kolb-Nelson said Chihara shouldn’t have had to wait so long for repairs and said she would try to speed up the process.

“I appreciate people’s patience while we get this project done,” wastewater chief True said. “It’s essential that we get it done. We recognize that some people will be inconvenienced. Any time there is a concern or complaint we want to get out there and respond as quickly as we can.”

After the Glitheros began finding cracks around their house, the county sent out an engineer who found a crack in the foundation. More recently, as Tom relaxed in the living room, he looked up and exclaimed “Holy mackerel!” when he saw a new crack in the vaulted ceiling.

Now push pins mark five cracks in the ceiling so the Glitheros can tell if they are lengthening.

“There’s a connection here and it’s not healthy,” Tom said of the problems. His biggest worry is what the settling will mean when he and Jan try to sell the house they lived in for 30 years: “I wouldn’t buy the house.”


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6 Responses to “Bored Subway Tunnels – Are They Problem Free? Will a Broadway SkyTrain subway be Another Cambie St. Fiasco?”

  1. Richard Says:

    Not a particularly clever strategy. All transportation projects can go sideways if they are not managed properly. All this type of post will do is encourage people who support SkyTrain for some corridors but believe that we need a variety of rail including trams and LRT in other places to find cases when LRT construction went a bit sideways. It is not that hard to do. All this back and forth does is waste energy of transit supporters and make it more likely that the government will spend more money on roads instead of transit.

    How about sticking to building support for rail in the Valley. That is something that even people who believe SkyTrain is better for some situations can support.

    Zweisystem replies: If a Broadway to UBC SkyTrain subway is built, there will never be LRT in the valley, there will be no money. If Vancouver taxpayers want a SkyTrain subway, let the Vancouver taxpayer pay for it. For far too long the City of Vancouver has been using valley taxpayers to fund politically prestigious transit projects that have done little to alleviate auto congestion and pollution. Let Vancouver property taxes rise to realistic proportions to fund metro.

  2. John Says:

    I agree with Richard. Rail for the Valley is a really good idea, and I fail to see why it has to be lumped in with opposition to SkyTrain on the Broadway corridor. Both projects are badly needed.

    Making the City of Vancouver pay for the Broadway SkyTrain is outrageous. This project benefits the entire Metro Vancouver region. People from all over Metro Van come to work and learn in the Broadway Corridor. Do you think Surrey, Abbotsford, and Chilliwack should have to pay the full cost of Fraser Valley rail?

    Zweisystem replies: The problem is twofold –

    1) TransLink, the operating authority’s region includes Surrey and Langley, yet spends precious little monies in both cities, despite the fact that the population of Surrey is almost on par with Vancouver, which now has 3 metro lines versus a small stub in Surrey which only acts as a funnel for commuters. TransLink’s and the provinces regional tax base is funding three very expensive metro lines (the two SkyTrain metro lines are subsidized by over $230 million annually) which benefit a small percentage of the population 150,000 to 160,000 people actually use the metro system and many (over 80% for SkyTrain – over 90% on the Canada Line) of those are force fed from buses. TransLink offers no evidence of a modal shift from car to transit. A UBC Subway will not attract much more actual ridership, as most using the B-Line buses transfer from SkyTrain. To keep poring billions of more dollars into a metro system and hoping something better happens is just plain silly. With LRT on Broadway, at least we would be providing a more economic way moving people people who are now on the buses. Remember – one tram (1 tram driver) is as efficient as six buses (6 bus drivers). LRT operating on Broadway would bring much cheaper operating costs than would a subway, something to help alleviate TransLink’s financial woes.

    2) TransLink has never honestly planned for LRT as current planners treat it as a poor-man’s SkyTrain, this is a notion that Rail for the Valley wishes to dispel.

    If there is any hope for the ‘return of the interurban’, we must be brutally honest about SkyTrain and the RAV Canada Line. The problem is the long standing myth that somehow SkyTrain is a superior transit mode, despite an almost total rejection by transit planners around the world. It is SkyTrain and its clones that has bankrupted TransLink and transit planning.

  3. David Says:

    While I agree that a scare tactic article about tunnel collapses is not the best way to garner support for other technologies, it is vital to the future of this region that we prevent any more subways from being built.

    I don’t believe the public really has the stomach for a $4 billion subway project, but if they really are willing to spend that much to help people get to central Broadway and UBC then I have an alternate proposal. Build all of the following:
    1. LRT from BCIT to UBC
    2. LRT from VCC-Clark to UBC
    3. LRT on the Arbutus corridor from Marpole to Granville Island and then along the rights of way for the Downtown Streetcar to downtown south and Stanley Park.

    If costs were kept under control well enough there might even be enough to start building the line from Metrotown to UBC along 41st.

    But that would be a continuation of the Vancouver-centric building that has occupied so much of the last 30 years. A more sensible use of the money would be to follow zwei’s advice and build the BCIT-UBC LRT and spend the rest in the valley getting light rail services into Surrey, Langley and Abbotsford.

    Zweisytem replies: From what I have read, sink holes in urban areas are more common than not with bored tunnels. Underground water courses, disturbed by boring have an interesting way to show themselves at a later date.

  4. John Says:

    If you want some brutal honesty about the SkyTrain, stand outside an Expo Line station at rush hour and try telling people a slower, at-grade LRT system with less capacity would have been better. Yes, it’s expensive, but as someone who has to take the SkyTrain on a near-daily basis, let me tell you it is worth every single penny. There are places where LRT simply isn’t adequate, and that’s something its advocates need to realize.

    Zweisystem replies: There goes the SkyTrain Lobby again:

    1) LRT need not be slower.
    2) LRT has ample capacity, something that the much more expensive SkyTrain does not.
    3) LRT is extremely adequate for any transit route in the region.

    I would strongly suggest you read a book on the subject before making your ridiculous claims.

  5. David Says:

    @John: I ride SkyTrain every weekday to/from work. I’ve also ridden a large number of other rail transit systems in Europe and North America. SkyTrain is nothing special.

    Transit operates at whatever speed it’s designed to. The LRT system in St. Louis is faster than SkyTrain because it sacrifices stations. Such systems depend on transfers from buses and park and ride lots.

    On-street systems have a totally different way of attracting passengers. They go where people live, shop and work. They attract passengers because they’re more comfortable and faster than a bus without sacrificing conveniently located stops.

    Why is the Expo line so crowded? The entire transit system was re-organized to feed it with passengers in an attempt to justify the horrendous cost of the thing. The same thing was done with the Millennium and Canada Lines. Bus passengers are more or less forced to use the trains.

    Had a similar amount of money been spent on LRT lines there would be an entire network of trams in Metro Vancouver by now. Passengers wouldn’t all be trying to jam aboard the same train because they would have more choices.

  6. John Says:

    Forced? I could get from my house in Cloverdale to my school in Burnaby entirely by bus, even with the absolutely pathetic state of transit south of the Fraser. North of the river you can get just about anywhere with the bus network. People take the SkyTrain because it’s much, much faster and can handle more people, not because they’re “forced” to.

    Zweisystem: How exactly do you think an LRT system on a road like Broadway could be run at the same speed or faster than a grade-separated rapid transit line? And more capacity than the Skytrain? Really?

    I am not a part of any “lobby”, I’m just a commuter proposing the best solutions for each region, not a “one size fits all” system, be it LRT or SkyTrain. A good transit system needs layers, including rapid transit, buses, and, yes, LRT. LRT without a heavy rapid transit backbone is doomed to failure, just like a rapid transit system without sufficient surface connections.

    Zweisystem replies: The speed of a transit system is dependent on two things: 1) quality of rights-of-ways; 2) number of stations or stops per route km. A “reserved ROW” is an unimpeded ROW, therefore it is possible a “reserved” ROW with an equal amount of stations or stops as a grade separated ROW would be faster given that LRT has shorter ‘dwell’ times at stations or stops than a grade separated metro. Now in an urban area, the desirable distance between stations or stops is about 500 to 600 metres and grade separated transit systems, because of the huge cost of stations, stations are further apart, which means a grade separated transit system has a slightly faster commercial speed, but at the same time a poorer service for customers who have longer distances between stations.

    Studies have shown that transit customers want the convenience of more stations or stops, than a faster commercial speed and is one of the reasons why light-metro, including VAL and SkyTrain have been made obsolete by LRT – Transit customers want convenience, rather than a faster trip.

    The proposed RFV interurban/LRT, with very widely spaced station would have faster commercial speeds than SkyTrain.

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