Friday, March 6, 2015

SR 542 Glacier Springs realignment moves forward with a blast

By Tom Pearce

We are getting closer to opening the new section of State Route 542 near Glacier Springs. On Feb. 8 we reduced SR 542, also known as the Mount Baker Highway, to one lane about four miles east of Maple Falls because the Nooksack River was eroding the bluff below the highway.

In an ordinary winter, reducing this road to one lane would be a major challenge because the Mount Baker Ski Area draws 2,000 to 5,000 skiers and boarders each day. The ski area and other businesses remain open, but with more rain than snow this winter, there’s not as much traffic on SR 542. On the other hand, if we had a more normal winter with heavy snow instead of the heavy rains, maybe we wouldn’t have had the winter erosion that forced us to reduce the highway to one lane last month. Either way, there are always challenges when a highway and a river coexist in the same place.

We’re building the new roadway about 100 feet northeast of the current highway, far enough away from the river that future erosion shouldn’t impact this section of highway. We hired Ram Construction of Bellingham to do the project. They began work on Feb. 19, the day after an emergency contract was signed.

Rock blasting earlier this week allowed crews to clear the new path for the highway. Once the base layer for new road is complete, crews will put down asphalt on the new 1,000-foot long section of SR 542. The contractor plans to finish work in the next few weeks, restoring the highway to two lanes.

Graders and compactors smooth out the roadbed for the new section of SR 542.
We're shifting the road to the northeast because the Nooksack River eroded
the bluff beneath the original SR 542 path.
We’ve been watching this area for several years. In late November we saw the bluff was eroding again. A significant amount of the bluff slid away and moved the edge closer to the road, so we began monitoring the bluff daily. Heavy rains in early February caused further erosion of the bluff, moving it even closer to the road. Because of the safety risk, we decided to go to a one-lane road and enter into an emergency construction contract to move the roadway. 

With the shift to a one-lane highway, we installed temporary signals to control traffic through the 1,000-foot single lane section. So far delays have been minor, usually less than a minute. During construction hours our contractor has flaggers controlling traffic, and we had some 30-minute delays for the rock blasting earlier this week, but that was the exception. We should only see brief delays as we continue building the new section of highway.

Businesses east of the road work are still open, including the Mount Baker Ski Area. It’ll take a few extra minutes to get there until we finish the new road later this month, but you can still get there. In the meantime, thanks for your patience.