Thursday, June 13, 2024

Galloping Gertie’s replacement is a Boomer, and it needs work

By Cara Mitchell

You’ve likely seen the memes about Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z.

We have a new one for you, and it involves two bridges across the Tacoma Narrows:

Photo of Tacoma Narrows Bridge with Gen Z vs Boomer text overlay

Our 1950 westbound bridge, from Tacoma to Gig Harbor, is a Boomer.

The 2007 eastbound bridge, from Gig Harbor to Tacoma, is a Gen Z.

One is 74 years old while the other is still virtually a teenager.

In recent years, we’ve seen issues with our aging westbound bridge. The most recent episode was in mid-May when an expansion joint required us to reduce the bridge from four to two lanes for several days.

In late May, we discovered more issues on the same bridge involving a type of expansion joint called a finger joint. It is called this because it resembles a finger on a hand. These joints allow the bridge to expand and contract. The parts to fix it took a few weeks to be custom manufactured. You can’t order these parts off Amazon.

Photo of a cracked finger joint on the westbound Tacoma Narrows Bridge
Photo shows a cracked finger joint on the westbound Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
The finger joint will be repaired June 15-16, 2024.

The repairs this time mean the westbound SR 16 Tacoma Narrows Bridge will be reduced from four lanes to two from 4 a.m. Saturday, June 15, to 4 p.m. Sunday, June 16.

Image of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark rolling his eyes
Real-time reaction from travelers reading that there’s more repairs on the way

Fortunately, this work could be scheduled over a weekend when there is less overall traffic. That won’t always be the case. Based on the age of the bridge, we know more emergency closures are in our future.

Years of underfunding both our highway Operations & Maintenance and Preservation programs have put our transportation system in jeopardy. Our highway maintenance crews provide short-term repairs like filling a pothole. Longer-term preservation work like roadway surfacing or bridge deck rehabilitation extends the life of our infrastructure. Both programs are needed to work in concert with one another. Unfortunately, given the number and age of our bridges, there is just not enough dedicated funding to keep them from developing age-related problems.

Tacoma Narrows Bridge crew members working under the bridge deck, fabricating forms
to pour new concrete during the emergency lane closures in May.

Lengthy repair list keeps growing

The westbound Tacoma Narrows bridge is one of the largest in our state bridge inventory. Given its age and how heavily it is traveled (45,000 vehicles each day, on average), it has a long list of repair needs including:

  • Replacement of expansion joints
  • Mechanical repairs of the elevators in the towers
  • Emergency electrical system supply upgrades
  • Rehabilitation of the superstructure damping mechanisms at the towers
  • Various structural repair needs throughout the bridge, such as tightening nuts, addressing rust and corrosion, replacing damaged rivets and bolts and replacing damaged structural members.
  • Fully removing and replacing the paint at the towers, trusses, cables and suspenders.

We have a preservation project designed to fix expansion joints on the westbound bridge that will extend the useful life of the bridge. The not-so-good news is that the project is delayed because we don’t have the funds to do the work. The earliest this project can now occur is 2026.

About those tolls

Before you type in all caps “whatabout those tolls,” a reminder that tolls don’t pay for maintenance on the westbound Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Tolling on the eastbound SR 16 Tacoma Narrows Bridge helps repay the costs to build the eastbound bridge, which opened in 2007. Tolls are only collected for trips headed to Tacoma, and toll rates are a fixed rate no matter when you travel. The Washington State Transportation Commission adopts state highway tolls.

Years of underfunding Operations & Maintenance and Preservation is catching up

Not having the funding we need means hard choices are made. Legally, we can’t overspend our budget. That means the agency must decide and prioritize which maintenance activities and preservation projects need to be delayed to stay within the budget we have. This is just like the tough choices people make with their personal budgets.

This is happening with the 1950 Tacoma Narrows Bridge and hundreds of other bridges and highways across the state. As of June 2023, 315 of our 3,384 bridges were 80 years old or older, accounting for 9.3% of all state-owned bridges. The number of WSDOT-owned bridges in poor condition increased 7% from 199 bridges in June 2022 to 213 in June 2023.

Washingtonians own a multimodal state transportation system that would cost nearly $200 billion to replace, but we’re not spending what we need to keep that system in good working order. This isn’t new information, and something our Secretary of Transportation and other agency executives have shared regularly with elected officials, local governments and other partners over the last eight years.

Both the Operations & Maintenance and Preservation programs aren’t about adding new things. Rather, they each play a role in taking care of what we already have.

For example, funding in the Operations & Maintenance program supports repairing potholes repairs, patching bridge deck patches and recent emergency closures on the westbound Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Planned preservation work, such as resurfacing a roadway or rehabilitating all the bridge joints in one project, are needed investments to keep the transportation system running smoothly.

Think of it like taking care of the roof on your house. Getting grime out the gutters and annual cleaning, that’s maintenance. Putting new shingles on, that’s preservation. You can clean a roof with old shingles and replace the shingle that is in bad shape. But, if you don’t put new shingles on your roof, eventually it will deteriorate over time and cost even more to fix down the road.

Maintenance crews holding things together

Photo of a Tacoma Narrows Bridge crew performing inspections high on the bridge
Tacoma Narrows Bridge crews perform inspections and
maintenance every week on both bridges

Our dedicated maintenance crew performs weekly detailed inspections and maintenance for both bridges. They identify, troubleshoot and address the many items needed to keep travelers moving. Their work is essential to the safe operations and extended service life of these bridges.

A separate team, our Bridge Preservation Office, also performs various engineering inspections (routine, in-depth, underwater, mechanical, electrical, structural) at set 1-year, 2-year, and 5-year intervals.

The point: we aren’t neglecting the bridge. It’s aging, and temporary fixes only go so far.  The team that cares for this bridge takes a lot of pride in their work. They strive to keep this span in the best condition they can. And it’s important to share this information so travelers understand what we are all facing.

More lane closures and extended drive times

There is never a good time to close lanes on the westbound bridge for emergency repairs. We know the weekday evening commute becomes brutal when this happens.

It wasn’t that long ago when there was only one bridge, and travelers had to plan an extra hour to cross the Tacoma Narrows during rush hour.

 So, why can’t we just move traffic to the other bridge during rush hour like Seattle’s Express Lanes?

While this seems straight forward, it isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Switching directions of travel across the State Route 16 Tacoma Narrows Bridge is possible. We designed it to work that way. But it works best for long term events. We did it in 2016 when the bridge decks were re-paved.

Putting this into place requires miles of traffic control barrels, reflective tape, cones and signs on both sides of the bridge. It requires reduced speeds in both directions and hours of set up. When you remove it, the entire process has to be repeated.  A switch like that when we’re closing lanes for emergency work would likely result in more backups – not less – for travelers.

Travel tips

When you hear another emergency repair is underway, have a plan in place. Alter flexible, non-essential trips. Telework if you can. Travel during non-peak commute hours if possible. Please know we’re doing the best we can in a tough situation and we appreciate your patience and any steps you can take to help lessen the congestion.

Real time travel information is available on the WSDOT app and the statewide travel map.

To take a deeper dive into our bridge performance measures, check out detailed bridge information found in our Gray Notebook.


Evans said...

Well written with good humor. Encourage your legislators to fund more $ for bridge repair!

Max Kuenkel said...

"Tolling on the eastbound SR 16 Tacoma Narrows Bridge helps repay the costs to build the eastbound bridge, which opened in 2007."

It didn't open in 2007, it opened in 2012.

WSDOT said...

Max, You can view opening day photos, from July 15, 2007, in our Flickr Album.

Max Kuenkel said...

Yes, I see the opening day photos, and it does say 2007. That blows my mind. Construction took 5 years. So the construction would have begun a few months after 9/11/01. I got it wrong somehow. I can't explain it.

Rick Timmerman said...

Delaying repairs and maintenance to this major transportation asset would cost billions of dollars. this is not a forward thinking policy. the legislature and dot need to stop wasting money on poorly planned transportation projects with poor results. stop digging the hole deeper!

Rick Timmerman said...

To replace a major transportation asset like this after it is unrepairable would cost billions. As a lifetime resident of the Tacoma Gig Harbor area, Sturdy Gertie is in the worst shape I have seen her. Remember the east side approach is a modified part of the 1940 bridge that we have lined with 100? 2 ton concrete barriers! to defer this maintenance is not a forward thinking policy. DOT stop wasting money on useless projects.

Christine Kuenkel-Diefenbach said...

Max, bitte melde dich bei mir!

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