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A troubled bridge over local waters

HOOD CANAL — It seemed fitting that the Hood Canal Bridge Legislative Tour was held in the basement of St. Paul’s Church in Port Gamble last Friday — everyone involved in the $205 million project to replace the west half of the bridge is taking a leap of faith of sorts.

Hopes were high during the four-hour session that the ambitious proposal will not only stick to its allotted budget but to its fairly strict timeline as well.

Next year, the Washington State Department of Transportation intends to bid the replacement of the floating portion on the bridge’s east half, east and west approach and steel transition truss spans and widen the west half’s floating portion to create a continuous eight-foot shoulder and a safer roadway.

Construction is slated to begin in spring 2003 and wrap up in 2006.

That is, if everything goes as planned.

To ensure that it will the WSDOT and the Peninsula Regional Transportation Planning Organization have made the bridge replacement project their top priority and have poured countless hours into preparing for the extensive improvements. They have also launched an massive educational campaign to help spread the word as to what the construction will entail and how it will impact the economy of the Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas.

WSDOT and RPTPO officials met with representatives from area tribes, military bases, businesses, public transit and the state Legislature on Friday to explain the place where the rubber meets the road and the road meets the water across the Hood Canal.

Using statements like “critical lifeline” to describe the 7,869-foot bridge, Glen Huntingford of the Transportation Commission and WSDOT, said he had already witnessed a fantastic amount of team work between interested parties to make the project a success.

“What we have seen so far is an excellent example of communication and ongoing cooperation,” Huntingford pointed out. “I think building those bridges — so to speak — is very important.”

Why now?

After opening more than four decades ago, the Hood Canal Bridge has seen more than its fair share of ups and downs.

On February 19, 1979, the western half of the structure failed during a storm that brought gusts of 120 miles per hour and sustained winds of 85 miles per hour whistling down the canal. It took WSDOT three years to rebuild and replace the section and the world’s largest floating saltwater bridge was reopened in October 1982.

Since then some rehabilitation has occurred at the site but the majority of work has been “band-aid” type fixes that have had no real staying power.

“These bridges have kind of been taken for granted,” WSDOT Project Engineer John Callahan reported, noting that although the bridge is able to handle tidal swings of 16 feet or more, plenty of work is needed to ensure motorist safety and continued operation of the structure.

“We’re just kind of waiting for the right storm and the right conditions,” he said. “This bridge is probably in one of the most violent environments a bridge can be in.”

Existing east side piers also fail to meet the state’s seismic code, meaning that another good earthquake in western Washington could further weaken the structure — or worse. The environment, continued corrosion, persistent problems and an increasing demand on the bridge are just a few of the main reasons why Washington State Department of Transportation is planning to make the much-needed repairs.

What will be fixed?

Replacing the east half and widening the west half of the Hood Canal Bridge might sound like a slam dunk, but the project is definitely one of the biggest challenges the state agency has faced in years.

Building enormous 60-by-360-foot pontoons, barging them up from the Port of Tacoma, creating enhanced cable to hold specially-built anchors in place and replacing existing transition span trusses and approaches is complex enough but it is also compounded by a relatively tight work schedule.

Although the completion date is about four years out, a good portion of the actual on-bridge construction will occur during a two-month work window in 2006, according to WSDOT Bridge Engineer Patrick Clarke.

“The superstructure must be finished for the eight-week window,” Clarke said, noting that construction during that period would be a “rapid process.”

“Eight weeks is awfully fast,” Clarke said, adding that WSDOT decided offering an incentive to do the project faster would be a recipe for disaster and loss of any part of the bridge had the potential to put the entire project way behind schedule.

Closing times?

While some late-evening closures will be enacted during the years leading up to mid-2006, the majority of motorists who rely on the cross canal route daily can expect huge changes in their commute as the project nears its conclusion.

On an average day 14,000 vehicles cross the Hood Canal Bridge from Kitsap to Jefferson County. This number jumps to about 18,000 on weekends and 20,000 a day during the summer months. WSDOT is attempting to do as much off-bridge work as possible but, nonetheless, the bridge will close for eight weeks in 2006.

Preparing for the worst but hoping for the best, state officials and members of the Peninsula Regional Transportation Planning Organization have been meeting with the public and local transit agencies to minimize the impact on local motorists who rely on the bridge.

The most agreeable mitigation plan would create passenger-only ferry service between Port Gamble and South Point. The proposal will require two 1,500-car parking lots at the Shine Pits and Port Gamble Mill and instigate carpools, ride shares and buses to connect travelers with their final destinations.

“The only way this is going to work is through a very comprehensive transit program,” Callahan said, who pointed out that the new ferry system would be able to transport up to 600 passengers per hour during the 20-minute crossings. “You’re not going to be late for a ferry... just early for the next one.”

Additionally, north and southbound passing lanes will be constructed on U.S. 101 near Mount Walker to alleviate congestion there. Presently, some 2,800 vehicles use Highway 101 through Quilcene but WSDOT officials expect this will hike by 7,500 when the eight-week closure begins.

Callahan also pointed out that the concept of car ferries across Hood Canal was discarded when WSDOT officials discovered they would only be able to serve 10 percent of the people who currently use the bridge on a daily basis. To make sure that the change doesn’t come as a huge shock, Callahan said, agencies from the state level to the local level would have to spread the word.

“We’re going to engage in public outreach like never before,” Callahan pledged. “There’s nothing crankier than a motorist who is surprised.”

Unless it’s a fisherman with no fish.

No fishing?

The Hood Canal Bridge isn’t only famous for its length — so are many of the fish hooked off its piers. The practice of fishing off the popular dock will come to a close for good when work gets underway at the site, Clarke said, citing security concerns as WSDOT’s primary reason.

“It hasn’t been very popular but it’s very necessary,” he explained, noting that the site offers ingress to deep waters without a boat. “Fish and Wildlife contends that it is the best fishing access in the state.”

Additionally, the park and ride lot at the east end of the bridge will face a temporary closure to make way for contractor equipment, Clarke said.

Hood Canal Bridge open house tonight

WSDOT Bridge Engineer Patrick Clarke will be hosting a three-hour open house on the east-half replacement of the Hood Canal Bridge tonight, June 12 from 6-9 p.m. at the North Kitsap High School Commons.

At 7:15 p.m., Clarke will give a formal presentation on the three and half year construction project, which is slated to start early next year and require an the eight-week closure of the popular roadway in 2006.

For more information, contact Project Manager John Callahan at (360) 874-3011 or Callajo@wsdot.wa.gov.

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