Commuters warned to prepare for bridge closures

April 21, 2009

By Warren Kagarise

Washington State Department of Transportation guides and news media members walk on the Interstate 90 floating bridge express lanes to see the worn expansion joints that will be replaced during bridge closures in May. By Greg Farrar

Washington State Department of Transportation guides and news media members walk on the Interstate 90 floating bridge express lanes to see the worn expansion joints that will be replaced during bridge closures in May. By Greg Farrar

Express lanes on the Interstate 90 floating bridge will be closed for 19 days next month while crews replace a pair of deteriorating joints. State transportation officials want Eastside commuters to plan ahead for the shutdown.

The bridge will be closed from May 4-23. A pair of new joints weighing 40 tons each — among the largest in the world — will be installed.

Blame tiny cracks for the shutdown. Steel joints that allow the bridge to bend with traffic, weather and the water level in Lake Washington began to deteriorate soon after the bridge opened in 1989.

Ralph Dornsife, a DOT bridge engineer, said broken joints could open a gap in the roadway. Existing joints are riddled with dozens of cracks.

State Department of Transportation officials said the cracks are not yet a hazard. But the joints need to be replaced before they weaken and break.

Joints in the express lanes and westbound lanes are cracked.  Although workers have conducted piecemeal repairs for years, officials said they wanted to replace the joints before their condition worsened.

“This is a safety project,” DOT spokesman Travis Phelps said, adding that planning ahead is key for commuters to avoid the brunt of traffic delays. “It is going to be challenging for drivers.”

Commuters can expect delays up to 40 minutes long on stretches of I-90 east of Mercer Island. During the closure, traffic will be restricted to the main roadway on the westbound bridge.

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DOT crews will replace joints in the westbound span in July. Hollow steel joints will be replaced with ones fashioned from solid steel. The $8.3 million project will be funded with federal bridge funds, which are supported by gas tax revenue.

Even longer delays are likely when the DOT shuts down the main roadway of the westbound bridge from July 5-28.

About 71,000 vehicles cross the affected bridges each day. Officials said commute times could double or triple during the closures if motorists do not alter their routes.

Vehicles will be limited to two lanes during the July shutdown. Crews will replace the existing cracked expansion joints with a new pair. Each joint weighs 65 tons.

Dornsife said the replacement joints are designed to last for 50 years, or about as long as the remaining lifetime of the bridge. He said the solid steel joints on the eastbound span of the bridge are holding up well.

The joints are about 10 feet wide and stretch from curb to curb. Drivers barely notice the joints as they cruise over them. Dornsife described the joints’ surface as “the tip of the iceberg.”

Beneath the roadway, the joints are riddled with cracks: 23 on express lane joints and 31 on the westbound pair.

During the shutdowns, workers will remove concrete surrounding the joints and remove the old joints. Crews will then install new joints and pour concrete around them.

New joints were fabricated at a plant in North Baltimore, Ohio, and then trucked 2,325 miles. For the express lanes, each joint is 42 feet long; joints for the westbound bridge are 65 feet long.

“You don’t just go down to Home Depot and pick up a new joint,” Phelps said.

How to plan for I-90 bridge closures

Traffic snarls will be inevitable when the state Department of Transportation closes the Interstate 90 floating bridge for several weeks in May and July. DOT officials want drivers to reconsider their commutes. Consider the following options:

  • Join or start a carpool: Find a carpool or form your own at www.rideshareonline.com. The first 3,000 people to join or establish a carpool will receive a $20 gift card.
  • Start a vanpool: Commuters who start a new King County Metro vanpool with four or more people will receive three free months. Call Metro Rideshare Operations at 206-625-4500.
  • Work from home or flex your schedule: Talk to your employer about working from home or a satellite location. Consider a compressed workweek as well.
  • Bike to work: DOT crews will build two temporary bridges for bicyclists and pedestrians when the westbound bridge closes in July.
  • Leave early: During the July closure, DOT traffic engineers expect the worst westbound backups to occur between 7-11 a.m. and 2-6 p.m. The worst eastbound backups are expected between 4-7 p.m.

Source: Washington Department of Transportation

Reach Reporter Warren Kagarise at 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment on this story at www.issaquahpress.com.

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