Pierce County Public Works to recommend replacing Fox Island Bridge
The future of the Fox Island Bridge became a little clearer this week, with the Pierce County Planning and Public Works Department disclosing that it has endorsed replacing the badly deteriorated structure rather than choosing the less costly, but shorter-lasting, refurbishment option.
The department informed Gig Harbor Now that it will request funding in the upcoming 2023 budget cycle for a full Type, Size, and Location Study, which is the first step in the design process for a new Fox Island Bridge.
“The department’s recommendation will be to conduct the study for the replacement option,” said Letticia Neal, transportation improvement manager.
“According to the studies completed, bridge replacement provides the most cost-effective approach over rehabilitation/retrofit for the long term,” said Kraig Shaner, field engineering manager.
Repairs to existing Fox Island Bridge planned for fall
If approved, work on the Type, Size and Location Study will begin next year and take about a year-and-a-half to complete, county officials said. With the completed study in hand, the county will have a more accurate estimate of project costs and needed environmental permits and mitigation requirements.
That is expected to make the project more competitive when the county begins applying for state and federal grants to offset the new bridge’s expected astronomical cost.
Planning and Public Works also announced it would make repairs to the existing bridge this fall, spending just over $1 million to ensure its integrity.
Responding to findings from an inspection last August, the county will fix issues with the concrete girder bearings — steel plates that slide across one another as the bridge expands and contracts — on piers 17 and 20, which are load-bearing members toward the mainland. The repairs may require bridge closures of an hour or two, or reduce traffic to a single lane at times.
Fox Islanders will want to keep calendar space free this June for an open house meeting the Planning and Public Works Department plans to hold on the island.
“We will be seeking input on ways to mitigate the impacts to residents’ commute across the bridge” during repairs this fall, said Erin Babbo, communications manager for Planning and Public Works.
Fox Island Bridge users may pay more
The county says it is too early to talk about who’ll pay for the bridge – that will come later, after the Type, Size and Location study provides a more accurate picture of costs.
But the question of who’ll foot the bill – and specifically, whether islanders will pay more of the cost of the bridge than other Pierce County residents, through tolls or a Fox Island-only property tax increase – is likely to be top-of-mind with residents when they attend the meeting.
Most indicators, including a consultant’s report commissioned by the county and statements made by elected leaders including Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, point toward island residents being asked to chip in extra for “their” bridge.
The bill for a replacement bridge is expected to be huge, dwarfing other projects in Pierce County’s transportation portfolio. The 2019 report commissioned by the county from consultants InfraStrategies LLC set the price tag for a new Fox Island bridge at $168.1 million in year-of-expenditure dollars, with construction taking place in 2025 and 2026 and the bridge opening in 2027.
With financing costs and the construction of tolling facilities, the total tab could rise to $350 million, officials said.
$8.50 tolls on new bridge?
Occupying the other side of the cost-benefit analysis are Fox Island’s approximately 3,900 residents — less than half of one percent of the county’s population. The imbalance has leaders, including County Council Chair Derek Young, whose district includes Fox Island, concluding it’s fair to impose an island-specific tax.
“There is a big cost to living on an island, and one of them is the cost of transportation to and from the island,” he said. “If there isn’t a local contribution, that project won’t happen.”
The Infrastrategies report concluded that not only would financing a new Fox Island Bridge require extra taxation of islanders, but it would necessitate islanders paying in multiple ways — namely through tolls and a new, higher property tax — along with federal and state grant money, and a contribution from Pierce County’s road fund.
The two such “balanced scenarios” laid out in the report include tolls ranging from $6 to $8.50 per round-trip (albeit with the maximum $8.50 rate applying only during the first year the bridge is open); an average annual property tax increase of $353 for island residents; $23 million in federal, state and local grants, $22 million of which comes from grant programs the report warns are “highly competitive”; and a contribution of either $3.4 million or $1 million annually for 30 years from Pierce County’s existing property tax-based road fund.
‘It’s not our bridge’
To some islanders, the assumption that Fox Islanders “own” their bridge, in the sense of being responsible for funding its replacement, is flat-out wrong.
“It’s not our bridge,” it’s the county’s bridge, said Patricia Peterson, a resident of the island for 30 years.
She looks at expenditures on other county transportation projects, such as $250 million to $300 million spent to improve Canyon Road and extend it from Frederickson to the Port of Tacoma, and notes that none of the route includes tolls for the companies or individuals that benefit from it.
Equity is a key argument against islanders having to chip in extra for the bridge, Peterson said. Combing through the county’s 6-year transportation budget, she said it’s clear that the 7th County Council District including Fox Island receives lower per-capita spending than several other districts. “Why are we just ignored out here?”
Ray Patricks moved with his family to Fox Island 6 or 7 years ago. His wife, a health and safety inspector for the National Park System and a U.S. Public Health Service officer, frequently travels to Mount Rainier National Park and Olympic National Park for work, and they sought a home base midway between the two.
Upon discovering the island, “We loved it.” The scenery, especially the view of mountains from the Fox Island Bridge, makes you “so grateful that you get to live in such a place,” he said.
The scenery is still beautiful, but to Patricks, who runs a wedding photography business, the thought of paying a toll of $8 per round trip toll on top of an increased property tax bill, all for a bridge that was free when they bought their house, detracts from the charm.
In addition to his kids crossing the bridge daily on the school bus, “we’re crossing once, twice maybe three times per day, depending on whether we need things at the store,” Patricks said. He estimates that with a $7 round-trip toll, he and his wife would spend an extra $28 per day. If islanders have to chip in more than other county residents to help fund a new bridge, he prefers a single fee, possibly in the form of a higher property tax bill, that allows unlimited crossings.
How much will feds kick in?
Echoing other island residents, Patricks said he believes the county should aggressively pursue funds flowing from programs like the recently signed $1.2 trillion federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill to offset the high cost of a new Fox Island Bridge.
Craig McLaughlin, an island resident and retired lawyer, is less optimistic about new federal infrastructure spending giving the bridge replacement a major boost. That funding will likely flow to the projects that help the largest number of people, and under that formulation, the Fox Island Bridge won’t likely qualify.
McLaughlin notes that Pierce County government and Fox Island residents wouldn’t be in this situation if past leaders had done the sensible thing and planned for the bridge’s end-of-life.
“As soon as the bridge was built and the county took over, there should have been a sinking fund for repair or replacement of the bridge,” he said.
McLaughlin and Peterson have become teammates in meeting with island residents and Pierce County leaders, to educate and to push for a timely solution for the failing bridge. His view is that Peterson’s equity argument – the idea that Fox Islanders should not have to shoulder a greater burden than other county residents in paying for the bridge – has validity and is useful “up to a point.”
But that argument is probably not going to carry the day and get them a bridge without taxes levied specifically on island residents, he said.
He does not think island residents will oppose a plan that asks them to shoulder part of the cost. “We’re pretty resigned to the fact that it’s going to hit our tax bill.”