It’ll be a while before they have all of the answers, but Pierce County Planning and Public Works officials provided what information they could about replacing or refurbishing the Fox Island Bridge during a community meeting Wednesday night at Goodman Middle School.
Staff members quickly discussed a repair project coming up in late fall before shifting to the topic that drew most of the 77 island residents to the auditorium and another 93 to their screens. A panel shared the county’s plans to conduct a full type, size and location study for replacing the bridge. It’s an early step in a multi-year undertaking, but many wanted to look farther down the road, at funding.
Before dollars can be sought, however, the $1.8 million study must be completed. It will be included in next year’s annual Transportation Improvement Program update. If approved, the county will hire a consultant to refine designs and estimate project costs, which would take about 18 months. It would be paid for out of county road funds. The study would be followed by at least five years of environmental work and then another two to three years of construction, said Kraig Shaner, field engineering manager for bridge replacement.
A preliminary analysis on type, size and location by consultants InfraStrategies LLC was published in October 2019. It set the price tag for a new bridge at $168.1 million, not including financing, with construction taking place in 2025 and 2026 and the bridge opening in 2027. By Shaner’s timeline, it won’t happen that soon. On Wednesday he pegged the total project cost at $180 million.
The preliminary analysis estimated the price to rehab and retrofit the bridge at $79.5 million, but projected that expected fixes over the first 15 years would push the cost beyond that of a new bridge. The county is requesting that the new study be conducted on the replacement option.
“It’s the most economical long-term solution,” Shaner said. “To retrofit is cheaper, but in 15 to 20 years you’ll have to do this and this and this.”
The Fox Island bridge is 68 years old and will need to be replaced or retrofitted.
The replacement discussion began after a 2012 inspection discovered deterioration of the bridge footings. A 2017 inspection stated that no immediate action was needed, but recommended that planning begin for future repairs. The substructure is rated 4 out of 7 on the National Bridge Inventory Code, which is considered poor. The two-lane, 1,950-foot bridge, which opened in 1954, is old and needs some work, but isn’t at risk of collapsing. It is the only connection to the mainland for about 4,000 residents, and carries about 6,000 vehicles per day.
The preliminary analysis explored a smorgasbord of funding options. The most favorable was a combination of property tax increase, grants, county road funds and bridge tolls. Two such “balanced scenarios” laid out in the report included tolls ranging from $6 to $8.50 per round trip, an average annual property tax increase of $353 for island residents, $23 million in federal, state and local grants, and either $3.4 million or $1 million annually for 30 years from the county’s road fund.
The hefty price tag left some residents Wednesday leaning toward the rehab/retrofit option.
“When I first saw the cost of $180 million, I almost fell out of my chair,” said Steve Kasal. “I was figuring $30 to $40 million. That’s an astronomical amount to expect 4,000 people to pay.
“Why are we talking about replacement instead of repair? Look long term, but I won’t be here long term. I think we should be looking at retrofitting that bridge to make it stand up for 50 to 100 more years.”
Heidi Avak thanked the panel for a great start to the process, saying it’s hard to know what islanders are thinking. Her Fox Island Bridge Discussion group conducted a survey showing that about one-third of respondents favor rehab/retrofit, one-third want a new bridge and one-third don’t have enough information to choose.
“It’s really about the cost,” she said. “You’re asking us for a lot. It’s a big burden to ask us to pay and to say you’re going to spend it on the most expensive one.”
The Fox Island bridge is the only connection to the mainland for about 4,000 residents.
Jean Burns said many islanders would prefer to just maintain the existing bridge as it is and not replace or retrofit it.
“The county should be fixing the road, doing maintenance on it,” she said. “We’re part of the county. It’s a public road. The bridge is fine. It’s not flashy or fancy, but it works.”
Planning and Public Works Director Jen Tetatzin, who had never heard that perspective, said residents will have many opportunities to participate in decision-making.
“It’s not a foregone conclusion we’ll replace the bridge,” she said. “You suggest we do nothing? We want to keep everyone safe. We don’t want to reach the point of deterioration.”
Panel members didn’t know the projected lifespan of the existing bridge, but said they’d find out and post it on the website, along with video of Wednesday’s meeting and background information.
Discussion continued throughout a 75-minute question-and-answer period, and comments were still coming in when time on the room ran out. They ranged from floating bridges to causeways to ferries to tidal generators that could sell electricity to pay for the project, and about every other funding source imaginable.
Planning and Public Works Transportation Improvement Manager Letticia Neal responded that there’s much competition for transportation dollars, that most funding from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act must be obligated too soon, by 2025, that it’s difficult to get funding for something that hasn’t been designed when it’s competing against shovel-ready projects, and that Fox Island is too remote to qualify for many grants.
“It’s a dead end,” she said. “It doesn’t connect through to other parts of the county. Grants available are few and far between that don’t require you connect to a major corridor or business center. Fox Island isn’t any of those things.”
But the county has had success acquiring grants and will pursue any funding options available, she said.
Shaner described a repair project that will impact traffic late in the fall.
Degraded bearings were found on Piers 17 and 20 on the mainland end of the bridge during an August inspection. Temporary repairs were made in October, but three bearings on each pier need to be replaced and deteriorated concrete at the ends of beams supported by the bearings replaced with a material that protects the beams from the weather. The bearings are steel plates that slide across each other as the bridge expands and contracts. The estimated cost is $600,000 to $900,000.
Design and environmental permitting have been completed. Once a contractor is selected, a construction schedule will be developed. The project is expected to begin in late fall and continue for about 1.5 months (30 working days, not including weekends, holidays and weather days). Message boards will be staged the week before work begins.
The bridge will be reduced to one lane with flaggers directing alternating traffic as needed during work hours. It could be closed entirely for short periods at night. Notice will be provided. Emergency vehicles will have access.
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