Troubles won’t end over Puyallup River Bridge

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The Puyallup River Bridge has been closed since May to allow crews to replace three sections of the six-segment bridge. More closures will come only after Tacoma secures funding for the $150 million price tag to replace the remaining sections. Photo by Steve Dunkelberger

Commuters who drive between Tacoma and Fife won’t see relief anytime soon. The reopening of the Puyallup River Bridge in early 2019 isn’t likely to help much since the bridge will still need more work. That likely means dots and dashes of closures to piece together the remaining repairs through grants that all have tight deadlines to complete the work or the grant money will have to be given back.

“That’s the frustration when you have projects this massive,” Tacoma Public Works Director Kurtis Kingsolver said. “It is almost painful, to be honest with you.” 

Tacoma closed the Puyallup River Bridge in May to replace spans of the bridge directly off the city’s Puyallup Avenue. The city had to do the current work now rather than finish cobbling the funding for the full $150 million replacement of the 950-foot bridge system all at once because the deadline to start work had already been extended once.

“It was in jeopardy,” Kingsolver said about the plea to the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Puget Sound Regional Council to extend the grant timeline. “To be honest, I thought we had lost it and we would have to start all over. That is not something that is easy to assemble. There is no large amount of money for projects like this.”

Asking for another extension was not an option, so the city moved ahead with repairs that it could fund as it continued to seek grants and funding partners for the rest of the work – knowing that decision means future closures at a time when state crews will continue to work on Interstate 5 just a few hundred yards away.

“It’s still going to be years and years of work on I-5, but now my bridge is in that (construction) window,” Kingsolver said.

The 91-year-old bridge system has to be replaced, regardless of how or when it gets done, however. Built in 1927, the steel-truss spans were part of Pacific Highway and later known as a section of Highway 99 in the decades before I-5 opened in 1960, according to city reports. It remained an important commercial arterial, linking Fife to Tacoma’s industrial and maritime areas as well as a detour away from I-5 congestion. But the city also has other bridges in need of repairs. More than a dozen of the city’s 43 bridges are either “functionally obsolete” or “structurally deficient.” That means that they either don’t meet current design standards or were not designed for their load-bearing features that are showing signs of age.

The East 11th Street bridge on the Tideflats, for example, was found to be in such bad shape during a structural review in 2014 that it was closed to all vehicle and pedestrian traffic.

“That one is not in good shape,” Kingsolver said.

The city can’t just use money from the two voter-approved street initiatives to replace it for several reasons. Voters approved the tax increases for pothole repairs and traffic improvements, not large projects like building bridges, but also the city’s residential streets need work too.

“People are just now starting to see a difference,” Kingsolver said of the road repair taxes Tacomans approve two years ago.

In other local bridge news, Washington State Department of Transportation is searching for potential new owners of a bridge that once crossed a section of the Puyallup River. The person or entity selected to take ownership of the bridge will receive up to $1 million to relocate and reuse the bridge, either as a foot-bridge or historic attraction of some sort.

This bridge, which spanned the river at Meridian Street, was built in 1925 but decommissioned in 2015 to make way for a new bridge. The 371-foot, steel truss bridge was relocated onto state right of way in Puyallup until a new owner can be found. The bridge will otherwise be scrapped if a new owner can’t be found later this summer. No one responded to a similar call for new owners of the bridge in 2017.

Proposals are due Aug. 9 and must include plans to maintain historically significant features of the bridge as well as assume all future legal and financial responsibility for the structure since it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The new owners must also remove it from its current site by next summer.

The Meridian Street Bridge was the longest riveted steel Warren through-truss span built prior to 1940 remaining on the Washington state highway system. The design of the Meridian Street Bridge was not only innovative, but was unique among bridges in North America because it combined elements of at least two existing truss-span designs, one very common and one very rare, but differed in varying degrees from both. 

It was designed by Maury M. Caldwell, an engineer who designed other significant bridges in Washington, including the 1,410-foot Pasco-Kennewick bridge. 

While about the same age, Tacoma’s Puyallup River Bridge won’t face the same future. It was never designated as a historic site and is just too big to move.

“I just can’t see that as being a real option,” Kingsolver said. 

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