The Elwha River flows beneath the U.S. Highway 101 bridge west of Port Angeles on Wednesday as the state considers plans for replacing the aging structure. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

The Elwha River flows beneath the U.S. Highway 101 bridge west of Port Angeles on Wednesday as the state considers plans for replacing the aging structure. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

State narrows choices for replacing Elwha River bridge

PORT ANGELES — State officials have decided to replace the dilapidated U.S. Highway 101 Elwha River bridge rather than abandon it and reroute traffic onto state Highway 112.

The state Department of Transportation received nearly 300 public comments on seven design alternatives for abandoning, retrofitting or replacing the 90-year-old bridge, which is being undermined by the now-wild Elwha River, an agency official said.

Transportation is now considering three alignments for a new bridge: the existing alignment, a parallel alignment or a new alignment to the north.

“There is an overwhelming preference for WSDOT to build a new bridge on a new alignment,” Transportation spokeswoman Claudia Bingham Baker said in a Tuesday email to those who provided feedback.

“People have expressed many reservations about using (state Highways) 112 and 113 as a short-term or long-term detour route, and have passionately argued about the importance of U.S. 101 in maintaining the region’s economic vitality and the overall quality of life for residents and communities.

“Your local elected officials have also expressed those same sentiments,” she added.

Since a reliable U.S. Highway 101 crossing of the Elwha River is “vital” to the Olympic Peninsula, Transportation removed from further consideration three options that did not include a bridge replacement, Bingham Baker said.

An option to retrofit the existing 388-foot-long bridge — Alternative 4 — was removed as a long-term solution because of the age of the concrete structure, she said.

“We are still evaluating the three remaining options that include building a new bridge using three different approaches,” Bingham Baker said.

“We do not have a firm timeline for a decision, but are moving forward aggressively. We recognize your preferences and concerns, and they will have a significant impact on our decision.”

Clallam County officials have said an extended detour using state Highways 112 and 113 — or Highway 112 to Joyce-Piedmont and East Beach roads — would be “unacceptable” because of the poor condition of those roads.

Commissioner Bill Peach, who lives on the West End and drives to Port Angeles almost daily, praised Transportation officials for taking a “hard look at the viability of 112” as a detour.

“I’m so happy they have made the decision to not pursue that as an option,” Peach said Wednesday.

“It does not make sense. It is not safe. It is extremely expensive.”

Moving the U.S. Highway 101 corridor to state Highways 112 and 113 would cost as much as $95 million to reach federal highway standards, Transportation officials said.

Here are the remaining design alternatives:

• 5. Existing alignment — Remove the existing bridge and replace it at the same location. Traffic would be detoured onto state Highway 112 during construction: $15 million to $20 million; two to three years.

• 6. Parallel alignment — Build a new bridge adjacent to the old bridge. Existing bridge would remain open during construction: $15 million to $20 million; one to two years.

• 7. New alignment — Build a new bridge north of the existing bridge. This would reduce the angle of the curve east of the bridge. The existing bridge would remain open during construction: $18 million to $25 million; one to two years.

Clallam County Commissioner Mark Ozias and Sheriff Bill Benedict cosigned a letter Dec. 13 urging Transportation officials to select option 7.

Undersheriff Ron Cameron, who drafted the original letter, said a new alignment would make the corner east of the bridge “a lot safer.”

“The most important thing to me is it keeps the highway open so commerce between the central area of the county and West End of the county stays open and first responders have a better route to the West End,” Cameron said Wednesday.

On Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer told Port Angeles Business Association members that he had spoken with Transportation officials about the bridge options and reported an “increasing appreciation that an alternate route is not an option.”

While a new bridge on a parallel alignment would also keep 101 traffic flowing, Peach said a new alignment is the best option because of the dangerous blind corner.

“You’ve got to keep your wits about you,” Peach said. “Just because you’re driving nice and safe doesn’t mean the person that’s coming at you is driving nice and safe.”

The Elwha River has eaten away at the riverbed below the 1926 bridge since the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams in 2012 and 2014, officials said. High water and sediment from the former reservoirs have scoured the riverbed around the bridge piers.

After discovering that the two piers were build on gravel instead of bedrock, contrary to the original plans, Transportation crews installed more than 3,300 tons of riprap to prevent further erosion.

Old cracks were discovered in the bridge, which is safe for travel but is being monitored with tilt meters, Transportation officials said.

“Our maintenance and bridge engineering staff continue to closely monitor the bridge using a variety of tools,” Bingham Baker said.

“We are pleased to announce that to date, the bridge has remained stable and open to all traffic.”

“We want to assure you that if the bridge is open to traffic, it is safe to use,” she added.

Crews will conduct monthly bridge inspections that will require single-lane, alternating traffic. The next inspection is scheduled for Jan. 6.

Between inspections, crews are monitoring tilt and flow meters and visually observing the bridge, Bingham Baker said.

No matter which alignment is selected, Transportation must obtain environmental permits, secure funding, purchase right-of-way (unless option 5 is the choice) and design the bridge before construction, Bingham Baker said in her email.

“It’s important for you to understand that this process will take longer than you probably would like,” Bingham Baker said.

“If WSDOT tries to circumvent or shorten legal timelines, we could end up causing delays in decisions and making the overall project longer.

“It is definitely in the community’s best interest for WSDOT to do things right, and to do them right the first time,” she added.

“This will not be a quick fix, and could realistically take several years to accomplish.”

For information on the project or to comment on the design options, click on http://tinyurl.com/PDN-elwhariverbridge.

________

Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at rollikainen@peninsula dailynews.com.

U.S. Highway 101 is shown crossing the Elwha River near the remains of the former Lake Aldwell in this April 2012 file aerial photograph. With the removal of the Glines Canyon Dam upstream of the bridge and the Elwha Dam downstream, the river has scoured its bed around pilings that support the bridge, prompting highway officials to consider plans to replace the structure. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

U.S. Highway 101 is shown crossing the Elwha River near the remains of the former Lake Aldwell in this April 2012 file aerial photograph. With the removal of the Glines Canyon Dam upstream of the bridge and the Elwha Dam downstream, the river has scoured its bed around pilings that support the bridge, prompting highway officials to consider plans to replace the structure. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

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