Delays lead to cost overruns on Bellingham bridge construction

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJanuary 25, 2014 

BELLINGHAM - A bridge over the future course of Padden Creek on Old Fairhaven Parkway is months behind schedule and over budget.

A series of delays have caused the Washington Department of Transportation to miss its expected completion date of Thanksgiving 2013. The bridge is a preliminary step to a city "daylighting" project, scheduled for 2015, that will move the creek from a 2,200-foot tunnel to a natural channel.

The tunnel is impassable to salmon and trout, and the fish crowd downstream of the tunnel to spawn.

The first delay came when plans for the bridge at 20th Street had to be redrawn after the tunnel was found to be in the way.

"The existing Padden Creek tunnel was misidentified in the plans. We had located it in the wrong place," DOT project engineer Chris Damitio said.

The setback brings to mind an obstacle on a much bigger scale: The DOT is also behind schedule on a tunnel for Highway 99 in Seattle, due in part to the "Big Bertha" boring machine getting stuck on an 8-inch steel pipe that was not supposed to be there.

Much more is at stake in Seattle's $1.4 billion tunnel project, which hasn't progressed for seven weeks. The Padden Creek bridge project fell behind only a few days, while the bridge was redesigned to avoid the tunnel.

"We raised up one of the piers (supporting the bridge deck) about two feet and moved a shaft over a foot and a half," Damitio said.

Six shafts 30 feet deep were bored into the ground and filled with concrete and reinforcing steel to serve as foundations for the bridge piers. Then came delay No. 2: Tests of the shafts indicated a possible weakness, Damitio said. More thorough tests showed the shafts were OK after all.

Combined, these two "hiccups," as Damitio called them, put the project behind only two or three weeks. The project has been inching along through the winter, adding even more to the delay, because none of the asphalt plants are open. Typically, they are back in operation by mid-February, Damitio said.

The bridge, originally anticipated to cost $2.68 million, is $120,000 over budget, Damitio said.

"We're pretty confident this will be the final over-budget," he said. "A lot of the risks have been eliminated now that we're out of the ground."

While waiting for asphalt, the contractor, Ram Construction of Bellingham, will pour concrete sidewalks on the bridge.

Traffic has flowed mostly without interruption since the work began in May 2013. Ram Construction built each lane of the bridge separately, shifting the roadway either south or north as crews worked on one lane or the other.

The city permanently closed 20th Street from Old Fairhaven Parkway to Wilson Avenue. Padden Creek will flow through that area after the street is removed. That block of 20th has been closed since the start of construction.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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