Bridge closures prompt Port Townsend letter

Impacts to business, emergencies outlined

PORT TOWNSEND — The Port Townsend City Council is asking the state Department of Transportation to have fewer but longer closures of the Hood Canal Bridge this summer and to provide ferry service when it is closed for repairs.

The bridge is currently scheduled to be closed from 11 p.m. Friday to 4 a.m. Monday on four weekends in July and August, weather permitting, but communities on the North Olympic Peninsula have expressed concern about the impacts the closures will have on local economies.

“I think the weekends only is one of the worst parts of this,” said council member Aislinn Diamanti during the Monday evening meeting.

“It doesn’t make sense to me that we would limit all of those impacts to weekends.”

The city council voted Monday to draft a letter to the state Department of Transportation (DOT) asking for fewer but longer closures and raising the possibility of additional ferry service directly from Edmonds to Port Townsend.

Council member Libby Urner Wennstrom said an alternate ferry route was set up during bridge closures in 2009.

Many of the concerns raised in the city’s letter are similar to those outlined in a Feb. 28 letter sent to DOT from the Board of Jefferson County Commissioners. That letter also requests fewer but longer closures, direct ferry service and asks that the construction be moved to June rather than July and August as currently planned.

DOT spokesperson Mark Krulish said in an interview that late summer was the best time weather-wise for the work to be done.

“This work requires calm tides, optimal weather,” Krulish said. “We’ve looked at other dates, but that’s the time frame we’re looking at.”

He said weekend traffic is typically more discretionary than weekday traffic, when more people are traveling for work.

Krulish said DOT hopes to have the exact dates of the closures finalized by the end of March.

Washington State Ferries are facing crew and vessel shortages, Krulish said, and alternate ferry service is not currently planned.

“We know that there’s no good time to do this work, we know that it has a great impact on the community, but I can’t stress enough how important this work is,” Krulish said.

“The center locks have to withstand a very harsh environment. This work is incredibly important, and we have to get it done.”

The city’s letter was not available Tuesday, but during the previous evening’s meeting, council members stated they wanted to pen their own letter expressing concerns about DOT’s plans.

In September, commissioners in Jefferson and Clallam counties asked DOT not to close the bridge during major tourist weekends on the Peninsula such as the Sequim Lavender Weekend in July and the Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival in September.

Council members acknowledged the bridge was in need of repairs but expressed concerns about DOT’s current plans, especially since DOT’s bridge construction schedule coincides with other construction projects along U.S. Highway 101.

DOT has responded to local concerns about the closures by proposing limited openings in the mornings and evenings during construction, but council members said they were unclear how that process would work.

“I’m worried that their only nod toward mitigation is these possible, like an hour in the morning, hour in the evening, openings, possibly on the weekends in question,” said council member Ben Thomas, who’s been leading the city’s efforts on the closure issue.

“How do you cut that? How do you stop? Are those people waiting there all day? It could be really awkward,” Thomas said.

Council members also noted the concerns raised by East Jefferson Fire Rescue (EJFR) Chief Bret Black about the closure’s impact on emergency services.

Black said in an interview that Jefferson County relies on Kitsap County for additional emergency support in certain circumstances and that some employees live on the other side of the bridge.

Black said EJFR was setting up an interagency work group to bring together the various emergency response agencies in the county to collaborate on potential solutions but that DOT hadn’t responded to the invitation to join.

“We’ve yet to actually sit down with WSDOT to see what kind of support they can bring,” Black said.

Krulish said meetings with emergency services in Clallam and Jefferson counties are scheduled for later this month.

Noting the construction schedule is dependent on weather, including tides, council members said that DOT changing its closure dates at the last minute would be additionally disruptive.

“What we really need as a city is predictability,” said City Manager John Mauro. “We really need them to commit to clear communication and to stick with a plan.”

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Reporter Peter Segall can be reached at peter.segall@peninsuladailynews.com.

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