Park preps for road project that poses challenges

jeff.mayor@thenewstribune.comSeptember 29, 2013 

Even as many of the operations at Mount Rainier National Park button up for the winter, park managers are keeping their focus on a major road project slated to start next spring.

The park is preparing to embark on a three-summer, $30-$35 million project to repair and replace the road surface from the Nisqually entrance to Paradise.

“The funding is there and the planning is nearly complete, so we’ll start that project this coming spring,” park superintendent Randy King said in a recent interview.

The park hopes to seek bids by winter.

Anyone driving the road from the park’s busiest entrance to its most popular destination knows the road is in bad shape and it isn’t going to get any better. The stretch from Kautz Creek to Longmire is lumpy, and you can see where a large timber structure protects the roadway from the erosive power of the Nisqually River. The section leading uphill from the Nisqually River bridge could be described as rugged.

The challenge – as it is for any major project at the park – is the short construction season.

Snow and ice can be an issue on shaded portions of the upper road into June. By early October it is not uncommon to have snow on the ground. In an average year, 640 inches of snow falls from July 1 to June 30.

Add in plenty of rain in the fall and spring and that doesn’t leave too many days to tear up the old asphalt, repair the roadbed and put down new pavement.

Thus the plan to do the work in three seasons.

King realizes that working on the park’s most-traveled road will cause headaches for visitors, staffers, concession workers and others, but there is no way to avoid it. The work has to be done and it has to be done during the park’s busiest season – June through August. Of all the recreation visits in 2012, 59.5 percent came during the summer/construction season. If you add September to the tally, that jumps to 77.1 percent of all visits.

“It’s hard to avoid road construction in the summer months in this part of the world,” King admitted. “It will be a challenge to provide access, but we’ll manage. Traffic will flow through there during the work.”

The intent of the project is repair and replace the road surface. There are some locations where the road base has failed and will require more complex fixes, King said.

“It will result in the same alignment and same feel. We have to maintain all the characteristics of that historic roadway,” he said.

That plan doesn’t sit well with everyone. Eric Simonson, co-owner of International Mountain Guides, argues that for that price tag, more work should be done to protect the road from flooding.

In a 2010 report, park geologists identified six locations along the road that were threatened by flooding, glacial outbursts and debris flows. The sites include Tahoma Creek, where rocks and debris constantly fill the space under the bridge, and the confluence of Van Trump Creek with the Nisqually River, where debris flows have raised the streambed 38 feet, well above the level of the road.

The problem, park officials have said, is rules governing use of the federal funds will prevent the park from spending much of that money to protect the threatened locations. The money for this project is coming from a fund strictly for highway repairs.

While Simonson has a valid point, I don’t think park officials can ignore the state of the main roadway at Mount Rainier. The work needs to be done, and as soon as possible.

That will leave the drivers of the more than 171,000 vehicles that enter the park annually through the Nisqually entrance to deal with delays, dust, workers and construction equipment.

King said efforts will be taken to minimize the inconvenience to park visitors, but added, “We’ll just have to live through the period of construction.”

That will require patience on the part of drivers, allotting extra time to make the trip from the South Sound to visit Paradise and perhaps some incentives from businesses along the state Route 706 corridor leading to the park to make sure people still head for the Nisqually entrance.

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640

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