Whatcom commuters struggle through Skagit bridge detours

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 29, 2013 

Whatcom County residents reported headaches but no disasters Tuesday, May 28, as they worked their way into and around Skagit County via official and improvised detours in the wake of last week's collapse of the Interstate 5 bridge across the Skagit River.

Molly Greenleaf, a marketer for Bellingham-based Hoagland Pharmacy, said she had to get to Mount Vernon Tuesday to help promote the planned June 3 opening of a new Hoagland's on Highway 20 in Sedro-Woolley. She left Bellingham between 10 and 10:30 a.m. and spent more than an hour getting to Mount Vernon. That's about twice the time normally needed for the trip.

Drivers reported varying experiences, leaving the impression that traffic backups came and went intermittently during the day.

Bellingham resident Eben Atwater manages the Panera Bread restaurant near the Burlington Costco, just north of the break in the freeway. After the initial traffic chaos subsided on Friday, Atwater said his commute into the Burlington area has been slowed little, if at all, by the mishap. The traffic seems to flow a bit more smoothly each day, he added.

But shoppers seem to be avoiding the area. Atwater said the restaurant did less than half the expected business over the Memorial Day weekend.

"It's coming back slowly, but it was a real shock at first," Atwater said.

Lynne Wheeler reported that she visited the Burlington Costco, Target and Haggen stores and had no problems with traffic, with perhaps a five-minute delay at most.

In a press release, Washington State Patrol trooper Mark Francis said patrol officers are helping to enforce traffic regulations along the detour routes to discourage impatient motorists from running red lights or blocking intersections as lights are changing. Those who do those things are making traffic problems worse and risking $124 tickets, Francis said.

Washington Department of Transportation spokesman Dave Chesson said the state agency has been trying to fine-tune the traffic flowing through the officially marked detours around the bridge collapse. Among other things, state traffic control technicians are operating some traffic lights manually to avoid too many backups at key intersections.

Chesson acknowledged that motorists are going to improvise their own routes if they believe the marked detours might be too congested. Chesson said that helps relieve the congestion on the main detour routes, and he hoped it would not shift congestion problems to other normally quiet streets and roads.

Parts for a temporary I-5 bridge were already arriving at the site on Tuesday. Chesson said state officials are optimistic that a temporary span can reopen the freeway as soon as mid-June. The temporary span will be narrower, and speed limits on it will be lower. It is planned to include two lanes in both directions and will be an improvement on the present situation until a permanent new span can be installed.

That could happen as soon as fall 2013, Chesson said.

MORE OVERHEAD BEAMS UNLIKELY

Chances are, there won't be overhead beams on the permanent span that replaces a collapsed section of the Interstate 5 Skagit River bridge.

State engineers are now focusing on a steel-girder bridge, in which the deck is supported from beneath, Harvey Coffman, bridge-preservation engineer for the state Department of Transportation, said Monday.

This sort of bridge can be installed faster, and with less traffic disruption, than a steel-truss bridge identical to the 1955-vintage span that crashed Thursday when a truck's overheight load hit several overhead crossbeams.

Coffman said steel girders are preferred because they're lighter than concrete girders, and therefore put less strain on the existing columns, built in 1955.

- SEATTLE TIMES

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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