FORKS — The Elwha River bridge on U.S. Highway 101 needs work and the state Department of Transportation now has seven possible plans — some more realistic than others, officials said.
Transportation has looked toward retrofitting or replacing the 90-year-old bridge west of Port Angeles near the highway’s intersection with Olympic Hot Springs Road because the now-wild Elwha River has eaten 14 feet of the riverbed around the bridge piers, causing concern for Transportation engineers.
Transportation unveiled its seven design alternatives for the bridge during a special Forks City Council meeting Wednesday.
A group of about 40 people seemed to agree that only one or two of the options would actually work.
Business owners, elected officials, loggers and others who commented during the meeting told Transportation staff that the state needs to quickly build a new bridge, not detour traffic to state Highways 112 and 113 for any extended period of time and not get caught up in years’ worth of red tape.
Or as several people put it: “Get ’er done.”
The state’s options range from doing nothing to building a new bridge on a new alignment and making the corner at Olympic Hot Springs Road safer. Another option people liked was building a new bridge parallel to the existing bridge.
There was no support for any of the five options that didn’t include building a new bridge or would require detours during construction.
Business owners on Highway 101 between the bridge and Forks told officials that detours for any extended period of time would kill their businesses.
Others said the detour on state Highways 112 and 113, a winding route often plagued with washouts and landslides, is not viable for high-volume traffic and would affect economies in Forks, Port Angeles and across the North Olympic Peninsula.
The retrofit option is still on the table, but Transportation engineers aren’t recommending it, said John Wynands, assistant regional administrator for project development.
Transportation discovered in October the bridge piers were built on several feet of gravel instead of on bedrock.
The state declared an emergency in October and put 3,300 tons of rocks around the piers to prevent further scouring and Transportation continues to monitor the bridge with tilt meters, crack meters, imaging and onscene visuals, and is monitoring the flow of the river, he said.
Of all the bridges in the state, the Elwha River bridge is the state’s top priority, Wynands said. Before October, it was much lower on the list.
To comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process, the state is required to look at all the options possible for the nearly 400-foot river crossing, he said.
Because of the urgency of the state’s need to address the bridge, Wynands said, Transportation is hoping for the NEPA process to go as quickly as possible, though in some parts of the process, there are fixed time frames that can’t be avoided.
It isn’t yet clear how long the NEPA process will take, said Claudia Bingham Baker, Transportation spokeswoman, but it would take at least several months depending on what environmental documentation the state is required to do.
The seven alternatives included some less reasonable options such as the no-build option or another option that would replace Highway 101 with state Highways 112 and 113, an effort that could cost upwards of five times the cost of a new bridge, Wynands said.
“We will rule out several of these options right off the bat,” Wynands said. The no-build option will likely move through most of the NEPA process, but Transportation officials don’t anticipate actually choosing that option.
The options are:
• Not building a new bridge: $400,000 to $600,000; one year to construct turnarounds on state Highways 112 and 113.
• Permanently replacing U.S. Highway 101 with state Highways 112 and 113: $40 million to $50 million for immediate upgrades, up to $95 million to reach national standards; up to 10 years to meet national highway standards.
• Build an alternate highway between Highway 101 and Highway 112 west of the Elwha River: $35 million to $45 million; two to three years.
• Retrofit the existing bridge: $10 million to $15 million; one to two years.
• Build a new bridge on the existing alignment: $15 million to $20 million; two to three years.
• Build a new bridge on a parallel alignment: $15 million to $20 million; one to two years.
• Build a new bridge on a new alignment: $18 million to $25 million; one to two years.
It was clear during the meeting the public thinks some options are better than others, but the state needs to hear that in the form of formal comments, Wynands said.
Bingham Baker said comments made within the next month or so will be of the greatest influence on Transportation’s decision, which officials hope to make by the end of winter.
“We want you to tell us in your words what you want us to do,” Wynands said. “We are your advocates for getting a product that will meet your needs.”
To do that, people can comment and sign up for notifications about the bridge at http://tinyurl.com/PDN-elwhariverbridge.
For the current status of the bridge, call 888-633-4005.
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.