Easy come easy go

14 March 2016

Relief was probably the general reaction when Seattle Tunnel Partners had been given permission to resume tunnelling by the Washington State Department of Transport.

After years of delays to the project, and then a brief setback to do with a sinkhole and a tipped barge, the project will, hopefully, begin make progress.

In an interview, Bob Ibell of London Bridge Associates talks about the ups and downs; the difficulties of being a contractor, difficulties that led to a previous employer of his abandoning tunnelling altogether for over a decade.

And while Seattle Tunnel Partners might hope things are looking up, for another contractor on the far side of the world things are looking far from positive.

IRB Infrastructure Developers has had the USD 1.5bn Zoji La Pass Tunnel contract stripped from it amid accusations of political corruption during the bidding process.

According to Reuters the company’s stock value fell four per cent when the news was announced, before recovering shortly after by one per cent. The Zoji La Pass project reportedly accounted for three fifths of IRB Infrastructure Developers' order book.

The news that India’s Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari cancelled the contract is a particularly painful setback, as it comes just after such a positive move for infrastructure spending in the country. In the latest budget announcement shortly before Tunnels and Tunnelling went to press, the country announced an infrastructure investment spending spree, notably including an impressive 22.5 per cent annual increase on road and rail spending, bringing the total to USD 33bn. Gadkari is seen as a standard bearer for infrastructure investment in India.

IRB Infrastructure Developers won the contract in January as the sole bidder, but the Indian Roads Ministry is quoted by Reuters as saying that the tender period had been extended several times. IRB Infrastructure Developer's managing director, Virendra Mhaiskar was also quoted by the news agency as saying the company had no idea why the deal had been scrapped.

The project is supposed to open up an all-weather route to Jammu & Kashmir with a 14.08km-long tunnel.

The project has in the past enjoyed a lot of prominent political support. In one instance, People’s Democratic Party (PDP) president Mehbooba Mufti spoke in favour of fast-tracking the tunnel project back in April 2012, saying that the tunnel would “unshackle the district of Kargil from physical and economic constraints.”

She added that political apathy has held back the region, which she identified as having great potential.

While not as high profile internationally as the problems on the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Project have become, sympathies surely go out to another contractor – and particularly in this case its workforce – struggling in the face of a sudden and enormous change in fortunes.