PORT ANGELES — State Department of Transportation officials now have more concerns about the Elwha River bridge on U.S. Highway 101 west of Port Angeles after discovering a crack in a bridge pier last week.
Crews worked Tuesday to inspect and monitor a crack in the 90-year-old bridge, less than a month after Transportation confirmed the bridge was built on gravel instead of bedrock.
Transportation crews want to keep an eye on the crack in the bridge and see if it changes, said Claudia Bingham Baker, Transportation spokeswoman.
“There are areas of the bridge that hold loads, so those are the areas they are focused on,” she said. “They just want to keep a closer eye on them.”
Crews on Tuesday inspected a crack on one of the two piers holding up the bridge. It wasn’t known Tuesday whether the crack was new, Bingham Baker said.
As long as the bridge is open to traffic, Transportation officials believe it is safe for travel, she said.
The state already has installed tilt meters to monitor movement on the bridge and placed large boulders around the bridge piers to prevent further erosion, though that’s only a temporary measure, officials said.
If the tilt meters measure 1 millimeter of movement in the piers, Transportation would close the bridge to traffic, Bingham Baker said, adding it was nowhere near that Tuesday.
So far, there are no weight restrictions on the bridge. Whether what’s learned from the inspection Tuesday would affect that is unknown, she said, adding that no restrictions are anticipated.
Engineers also calculate stresses from both the bridge’s own weight and traffic to determine whether the bridge is safe.
Engineers had been working to determine whether to replace or retrofit the bridge before crews inspected the crack.
That decision hasn’t yet been made, but Bingham Baker said Transportation officials will move quickly.
“Certainly by the time this winter is over, we should be on a path forward,” she said.
The now-wild river has continued to eat away at the riverbed under the bridge since the removal of the Elwha Dam in 2012 and the Glines Canyon Dam farther upstream in 2014.
Sediment from the former Lake Aldwell and high water have scoured the riverbed in which the piers sit. Officials have said the riverbed has been washed out 14 feet down since the Elwha Dam was removed in 2012.
Among the factors Transportation officials are considering is whether spending money to replace the bridge would be more beneficial than spending money to retrofit a bridge that has already served nearly double its lifespan, Bingham Baker said.
“That bridge is already beyond the average lifespan of a bridge,” she said. “Most bridges are designed to have 50 to 75 years.
“The fact the bridge has functioned as long as it has is a testament to our bridge maintenance crews.”
If the bridge is replaced, it might not necessarily span the river at exactly the same spot, she said.
“It could be the same alignment or different alignment,” she said. “There are a lot of different factors that could influence that decision.”
The Elwha Dam was removed along with the Glines Canyon Dam higher up the river as part of a $325 million National Park Service project to restore the Elwha River to its wild state.
Transportation engineers aren’t concerned about the other bridges that span the Elwha River, including the state Highway 112 bridge, Bingham Baker said previously, explaining that other bridges were not built with piers anchored in the riverbed.
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].