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Puget Sound Transportation Projects

Tacoma Narrows Bridge - Final Thoughts

The new Tacoma Narrows Bridge is now open for business. It appears so far to be an incredible success. What used to be epic backups on SR 16 from Gig Harbor in the morning and from Tacoma in the evening are now gone. Concerns about huge backups at the toll booths have not come to pass; in fact, most users so far seem to be utilizing the automated Good to Go system. It seems to be doing everything that was asked of it and more.

The project is not totally complete however. There is a retrofit underway on the current bridge. Minor work remains on the whole project. But the main parts of the project, extending HOV lanes on both sides, widening the road and opening the bridge, are done.

Watching and documenting the entire process, from the planning stages through the opening, has been very interesting. Due to changes in my life during the period of construction on the bridge, I was unable to focus on it as much as I had hoped. However, I was able to grab photos and see the construction at almost every stage. This was a MAJOR engineering and construction project, especially for this area, and I am glad I was able to document it and share with you the results.

While the project was completed mostly on budget and only a few months late, and with no deaths and few accidents, it had its moments of controversy. The biggest of course was the project itself, especially as it was set up as a privately run design build contract, a first for the state. Naturally, residents of the peninsula who had fled Tacoma in search of cheaper houses, lesser taxes and more land were upset about the tolls required to fund the project.

Various problems developed during construction as well: sabotage of winches on board the ship carrying deck sections, replacement of cables that had been stored outside and were damaged, work slowdowns and shutdowns due to an extremely bad winter. But now it is finally complete, if a few months late.

Unfortunately due to all the controversies, many opportunities were missed to promote this project both locally and nationally. This is the biggest suspension bridge to be built in the US in 30 years, and perhaps the last suspension bridge to be built for awhile. This was a major project for the state, Pierce County and Tacoma as well. Not only does this solve a major traffic problem, but it was a significant engineering feat as well. Yet few people know this, even in the local area.

Problems promoting the project developed from the start. While today there are multiple TV shows that document such projects, most didn't exist when the project began. An early article in the Tacoma News Tribune mentioned that the builders talked with NOVA about producing a show about the bridge. However, they wanted only $50,000 to produce an episode on it. Supposedly, the builders had someone produce their own video, and TV Tacoma (local municipal TV station) was mentioned as shooting video of the bridge. We can only hope that they will release these videos, preferably in some type of Web format, for viewers not in the general area.

The opening celebration, while it fit the practical nature of the project, was low key, primarily due to the protests of people on the Gig Harbor side, as all costs for the project are to be covered by tolls. Again, with the nature of this project coupled with what has been a large disdain for the Tacoma area over the years, more should have been done to promote the new bridge. We lost out on an excellent opportunity to heavily promote Pierce County in a positive light.

Along with the promotion issue, there are also issues as to how tolls will be collected. While separating traffic on two bridges and other improvements to SR 16 will help the situation, the biggest improvement to the freeway is the addition of carpool lanes. A major opportunity was missed to discount carpools and buses, therefore encouraging more ridesharing and reducing traffic. Again, this was done as a small group of people are upset paying tolls and fought against it.

So I feel I need to rant a second here. Now, I am not a homeowner, and sadly, due to the location of my work (Redmond, WA) I may not be for some time. Redmond is a VERY expensive area to live in. So I guess I don't know the personal pain of "losing" value on a house due to something changing in the area, like the only route to a major city being tolled. But I need to make a point here. When you move to an area, convince others to move with you, and the area is across a choke point from where the jobs are, it should be assumed that one of a few things will happen. Either your commute is really going to be bad, OR your commute will be worse while a fix is applied, and you may be paying for it. Especially in a state where the voters said, oh we pay too much in taxes, it should be assumed that anything new will be covered by a direct user fee, like a toll.

The same argument exists in the Eastside area, where a major battle is brewing on the expansion of SR 520. When you were able to afford your million dollar "starter home" due to either your Microsoft job or your job supporting them, it should be assumed that the 4 lane freeway, grossly underscaled for the employment centers it serves, will eventually require widening. And if that "starter home" is close to the freeway, well sorry but your noise level is going to increase and potentially yard space will decrease when a fix is applied.

People, you *MUST* do your research. No offense to those in the real estate profession, but it is a profession. The agent who mentions that well that nice bridge you crossed to your "dream home" MIGHT be expanded and you MIGHT have to pay a toll won't get your commission. They are NOT going to tell you what you need to know, especially if it is "sometime in the future" speculation. There is a great thing called the World Wide Web. If you are reading this you found my site, congratulations. However, there are a LOT more resources out there. Don't assume that just because the freeway in the back yard is 2 lanes now that you are the only person to move there and it will never need, or never be, expanded.

Citizens need to realize how things interconnect. Yes, maybe you like to drive everywhere, or have kids or activities that are not compatible with public transportation. Or maybe you were able to get the house/condo a mile from work. I understand that paying the extra .01% sales tax or a couple hundred a year in extra taxes, or even a toll, is a lot. You may say oh but I will never use the road, or I would NEVER take the icky bus. But think about it this way: if I decide/am forced to commute everyday (due to living location, cost, etc) and decide the bus/train is fine, I am now one less car on the road and one less car in the lot, making your commute easier. If the bridge/freeway is now 4 or 6 lanes instead of 2, we both can move much faster.

As to the "I don't drive in Seattle/Tacoma/Western Washington" argument, well no offense but those areas tend to drive the rest of the state. Much of the tax money Microsoft and related companies pay go to the whole state, not just here. I don't see many ports in Eastern Washington. If you got to ship it out it's going through Seattle or Tacoma. I know we all like to see direct action but you need to see the big picture.

With all this said, everyone should still fight to improve the process. The tax cuts and other things that happened in the late 90's have improved the government processes somewhat. Seattle, while still big, isn't the root of everything anymore. WSDOT has become more transparent in how they do things, and has now started to investigate and implement new processes and procedures, like design-build projects and yes, tolls. But you still need to be realistic; in the only state where real estate still appreciates at 10-20% per year (2007), in a world where third world countries are becoming first world and demanding their own roads and rail, costs will still continue to increase dramatically.

For those of you bemoaning the probable tolling of the I-90 and 520 bridges, or even proposed tolls on 405, take note. Wouldn't you pay $3, $4, even $6 if your commute to Seattle from the Eastside was 20 minutes instead of the hour to hour and a half it is now? If say a Microsoft, Boeing or Eddie Bauer decided to stay here and not only give you/your  kids/neighbors jobs but also allow that corner coffee shop, Laundromat, heck even school to stay in business, rather than move to Tacoma or even out of state? If you saw your husband/wife and kids more than an hour at night?

We really need to rethink the way we do things. As a final thought, the recent (August 2007) collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis should tell us that yes, it is time to make a few sacrifices to improve and maintain what we already have. And the next time…we should devote a little more time to promoting the project as well.

Thanks for reading and thanks for viewing the site.

Ben Brooks
August 2007