Pieces of aging span will live on as piers

JOSEPH TURNER; The News Tribune


It didn't attract much attention when it happened last fall, but the state has sold half of the Hood Canal Bridge.

The east half of the floating bridge, which will be replaced over the next three years, was sold in sections last November to several private companies that plan to use some of the 5,000-ton sections for marinas in Canada and Costa Rica.

The selling price - $12,100. Not bad for more than 3,000 feet of floating roadway. The entire 7,869-foot bridge (about 1.5 miles), which opened in 1961 at a cost of $26.6 million, includes elevated approaches at each end supported by piers and a midspan drawbridge.

Delori Soukup, the state Department of Transportation official who oversaw the sealed-bid auction of the old pontoon sections that make up the long middle portion of the bridge, said the state didn't expect to get much money. Its primary interest was avoiding the estimated $9.2 million cost of disposal, she said.

The DOT had been looking at the possibility of deep-water disposal - towing the bridge out to sea and sinking it, she said. But that would have posed serious environmental problems, she said.

Although the east half of the bridge was sold at auction in November, the companies that purchased the floating sections won't take possession until May 2006. That's when 17 new pontoons that will support the new eastern portion of the bridge will be towed into place as part of a $204 million construction contract to replace the east half and fix up parts of the west half.

Reconstruction will bring the eastern half up to the standards of its western counterpart, including pontoons large enough to allow widening the roadway from two lanes to four in the future.

The bridge functions something like a ship. Except for the elevated approaches at each end, the roadway is built upon a series of pontoons that float despite their size and weight. The eastern half's reconstruction will include new piers, pontoons, trestles and a prefabricated deck. Crews, tugboats and cranes will anchor the piers in the 360-foot-long pontoons and build the highway superstructure on top of the piers.

In last fall's sale, Susan Rubstello, vice president of Fishing Vessel North Wind Inc. and owner of Rubstello Pacific Inc., bought most of the existing bridge sections.

Some of the pontoons, which weigh as much as 5,000 tons and are 210 to 360 feet long, will be towed to Papagayo, a small town on Coco Bay on the Pacific Ocean side of Costa Rica, she said.

Four Seasons is planning to build a new hotel on the bay and Rubstello envisions the pontoons serving as a loading and unloading point for cruise ship passengers and yacht owners.

"It's an instant marina," she said.

Other parts of the bridge will be assigned to Grant Rogers, owner of Marker Developments Ltd., a waterfront development company in Victoria, British Columbia. Rogers said he's looking at several options, including using the old pontoons as a breakwater for a British Columbia marina.

Rubstello is an old hand at buying old floating bridges. She bought parts of the old Interstate 90 bridge across Lake Washington when it was replaced in 1990. And she's used to hauling them around the world. One section of the I-90 bridge was towed to San Diego for use by a port, then towed back to Seattle when the port was finished with it, she said.

Putting the old Hood Canal Bridge sections to use means she'll have to have them towed some 3,400 miles along the West Coast to a Costa Rican bay.

"It's all doable and it's pretty exciting," she said.

The May 2006 delivery date gives her time to work out the logistics, and perhaps find uses for other parts of the old bridge, she said.

Repair work on the new bridge is expected to begin later this summer.

DOT project manager Ron Lewis said the contract with Kiewit-General Construction of Poulsbo has not yet been finalized, so there isn't an exact timetable. But drivers aren't likely to see much disruption this summer.

There may be some single-lane closures, mostly at night, as the contractor works on the approaches to both halves of the bridge. But most of the work over the next three years will be taking place at a graving yard in Port Angeles, where the new pontoons will be built, he said.

The east half of the bridge is being replaced because it has been exposed to the corrosive effects of saltwater for 42 years - since it opened in 1961. And it's showing its age. The midspan drawbridge, which creates a 600-foot-wide opening through which vessels can pass, periodically gets stuck open. And parts of the bridge are rusting and falling apart.

The west half of the bridge already has been rebuilt after the original section sank in 1979 during a windstorm.

Overall, the Hood Canal project will cost $255 million, including engineering and property purchases that already have been done. Work should be finished in 2007, just about the time the second Tacoma Narrows bridge, an $850 million project, is completed.

But unlike the Narrows Bridge, the new Hood Canal Bridge won't have tolls. The Hood Canal project is considered replacement work, while the Narrows is adding capacity - two carpool lanes.

Lewis said when the Hood Canal Bridge is finished, the bulge in the middle - which allows the bridge to swing open - will be removed. Instead, hydraulics will lift part of the roadway and a section of roadway will retract straight back. That's how the west half of the bridge currently operates, he said.

The real inconvenience to drivers will occur in May 2006. The contract allows for a 30-day total closure while the existing pontoons are removed and the new ones are floated into place, he said.

DOT officials haven't worked out all the details for alternative routes yet, but temporary ferry service is among the options under consideration.

The bridge is the only direct link between the Northern Olympic Peninsula and the Kitsap Peninsula and central Puget Sound. Jefferson and Clallam counties, together home to more than 90,000 people, depend on it. Local residents, commuters, freight haulers and recreational travelers make more than 14,000 trips a day across the bridge. That number leaps to more than 20,000 during the summer.

Joseph Turner:253-597-8436


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