SR 99 Tunnel Project Panoramas

First of all, we want to thank Bill Edwards for writing this post and for his amazing work!

This panoramic photo series is focused on the work sites of the SR 99 Tunnel Project where a bored tunnel will replace the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle, Washington.

Above the Launch Pit, SR 99 Tunnel Project, Seattle, WA


Background on the SR 99 Tunnel Project:

The original viaduct is a two deck elevated section of State Route 99 that runs north-south above the surface street, Alaskan Way, along Seattle’s waterfront by Elliott Bay. The roadway was damaged during the 2001 Nisqually earthquake and had to be temporarily closed for emergency repairs.


South Cut-and-Cover, SR 99 Tunnel Project, Seattle, WA


In the decade following the quake, state and local agencies studied more than 90 alternatives for replacing the viaduct. Leaders from the state, King County, City of Seattle and Port of Seattle ultimately recommended a bored tunnel, along with a host of other improvements, to replace the waterfront section of the viaduct. It was the only alternative that would allow SR 99 to remain open during construction, maintaining a vital stretch of state highway.


Bottom of Launch Pit, SR 99 Tunnel Project, Seattle, WA


The SR 99 tunnel is a 2 mile tunnel in Seattle that is being bored by the world’s largest tunnel boring machine, named Bertha. Seattle Tunnel Partners, the contracting team hired by WSDOT (Washington State Department of Transportation) to build the tunnel, is working to open the tunnel to traffic in late 2016. WSDOT maintains a website that keeps the public informed of the activity and progress on the project. Here is the address:


Northern Edge of Bored Tunnel, SR 99 Tunnel Project, Seattle, WA


The story behind the panoramas:

As a former architect, the project intrigued me so I contacted a person in the communications department at WSDOT whose responsibility was the tunnel project. I indicated my interest in the project and suggested that virtual reality panoramic photography would be a great way to showcase the project online and would add dimension to their current online presentation of the project. The WSDOT site already had still photo galleries on Flickr and construction camera pages with time-lapse images so 360 panoramas would be a natural addition. Fortunately my contact immediately visualized the possibilities and benefits and decided to explore how to go forward.


Below Bertha, SR 99 Tunnel Project, Seattle, WA


After deciding how to proceed, my contact scheduled a photo shoot of the construction activity at the south portal, the launch site of the tunnel project on August 7, 2014. She and an onsite WSDOT inspector signed me in, outfitted me and escorted me through the job site during photography. The site is a closed site so I had to sign in under their sponsorship, sign a liability waiver, wear boots, an orange safety vest, hard hat, safety googles and gloves. The shoot lasted 2 hours during which I shot 8 panoramas, 5 of which are featured in the virtual tunnel tour. A second shoot at the north portal, where the tunnel emerges, took place with the same conditions on September 12, 2014. That shoot lasted about an hour and a half during which I shot 5 panoramas, 4 of which were selected for the virtual tunnel tour.


Tunnel Receiving Pit, N Portal, SR 99 Tunnel Project, Seattle, WA


Prior to the first shoot I didn’t know what to expect. I thought I’d have more time. What I didn’t know until later is that the narrow window of time that I was allotted was way more than usual. So my experience was that I needed to visualize the shots quickly and work fast to capture enough source images to create a usable panorama. I was in their house and had to adapt to what was going on because everything was in motion and nothing stopped to accommodate my photography. One of my challenges was to assess the movement of cranes, other equipment and construction workers and shoot enough frames during brief pauses in activity so I’d be able to successfully stitch them together into one realistic scene without parallax or other errors. I had to be conscious of picking stable surfaces for the tripod and assess how to shoot to get rid of tripod and extraneous people shadows in the down shots. I also needed to be mindful where my escorts were standing so I could instruct them where to move if they didn’t want to be in the shot. Since this was a once in a lifetime opportunity I tried to take enough extra ‘safety’ shots so every set up would result in a complete usable panorama. In summary, I had to visualize and work fast and try not to make mistakes.


North Portal, SR 99 Tunnel Project, Seattle, WA


To get to the locations onsite required me to make several trips up and down temporary jobsite metal stair ways and vertically pitched extension ladders. I carried my camera in a Crumpler ‘6 Million Dollar Home’ camera bag and clipped my tripod to it with sling and climbing carabiner so I’d have both hands free on those extension ladders. That worked pretty well because I felt much safer with both hands on those steep exposed ladders. I shot with a Nikon D600 full frame DSLR, a Sigma 15mm f2.8 fisheye lens and Yongnuo RF-603N radio triggers. My tripod is a Manfrotto 190CXPRO4 with a Really Right Stuff BH-40 ballhead. On top of the ball head is a RSS panning bracket and a one-of-a-kind panoramic head that I designed and built for the Nikon D600 with the Sigma 15mm fisheye lens. It is significantly lighter and less expensive than any commercially available product. I designed it specifically for high country wilderness hiking trips where weight carried is a paramount consideration.


North Cut-and-Cover, SR 99 Tunnel Project, Seattle, WA


The people that I met at WSDOT and on the work site were all very enthused about the project and really great to work with. It was exciting for me to be onsite and creatively satisfying to have the opportunity to make these panoramas which help the public actually see what is going on inside the project since tours inside the work zone are not possible for the general public.


Operations Building, SR 99 Tunnel Project, Seattle, WA


Submitted by: Bill Edwards 


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s