DOT: Plan ahead for July bridge shutdown

June 2, 2009

By Warren Kagarise

Transportation officials want drivers to plan ahead as the state readies to close the three lanes of the westbound Interstate 90 floating bridge next month.A state Department of Transportation official had a stark warning for commuters last week.

“If you thought it was bad in May, unless a significant number of people change their habits, it is going to be far worse,” said Russ East, assistant regional administrator for the DOT.

About 71,000 vehicles cross the bridge each day. East said the congestion would be severe during the shutdown. He said factors such as bad weather and accidents can also wreak havoc with commute times.

“I don’t want to predict how far the backups will go,” he added.

Officials will close the bridge for repairs July 5. The shutdown is scheduled to last up to three weeks.

Crews will install a pair of new expansion joints weighing 65 tons each. Joints — some of the largest in the world — allow the bridge to bend with traffic, weather and the water level in Lake Washington.

Existing joints began to crack and deteriorate soon after the bridge opened in 1989. Although workers have conducted patchwork repairs for years, state Department of Transportation officials said the joints must be replaced before they weaken and break.

The entire project will be paid for with $8.3 million of federal bridge funds, paid for with gas tax revenue.

Crews spent two weeks in May replacing expansion joints on the two adjacent express lanes. The project was completed a week ahead of schedule. Officials attributed the shorter shutdown to incentives offered to the contractor if workers finished the project early.

Workers tested the joints after the installation and Mike Coleman, the chief DOT inspector for the project, inspected the bridge before it was reopened to traffic.

Commute times from Issaquah to Seattle doubled from the usual 30 minutes during the worst periods of congestion related to the closure.

DOT officials negotiated with the contractor about the possibility to alter the schedule and shorten the July shutdown, East told City Council members during the May 26 Committee-of-the-Whole Council meeting.

East said the measures discussed including prep work at the construction site and having crews work longer hours to complete the joint project.

“We found that working with the contractor, there are things that he can do to accelerate,” East said. “They don’t come without cost.”

East laid out suggestions to help cut down on the number of commuters using the bridge at peak times: Take a vacation, or commute before 6 a.m. and after the evening rush.

“If you’re trying to travel during the midday, the problem that you’re going to have is that, while the volumes will be down, it will still be extraordinarily congested, because the freeway doesn’t have the capacity,” East said.

Councilman Joshua Schaer, an attorney, said he took a vacation the second week of the May shutdown. The vacation allowed him to avoid a packed commute to the law firm in downtown Seattle where he works.

“I can attest to the fact that the commute time was well over an hour from Issaquah to downtown, since I travel that route every day,” Schaer said.

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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