Four days, two lanes, one mess

I-90 faces delays when stranded piece of Narrows bridge starts moving

March 30, 2007 

A 100-ton expansion joint for the new Tacoma Narrows bridge sits at a weigh station 20 miles east of Spokane. A new plan to transport the part will take four days and clog two lanes of Interstate 90.

BRIAN PLONKA/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW

The piece of the new Tacoma Narrows bridge that has been stranded at the Idaho-Washington border for the past two weeks could start moving again as early as Monday, but when it does, it’s going to be a long, slow trip.

The Texas hauler who brought the 100-ton expansion joint from the Minnesota factory where it was manufactured has given up on trying to satisfy Washington state’s weight requirements with an extra-long truck that fit into a single lane of traffic.

Instead, the big joint, plus another one just like it parked in Sioux Falls, S.D., will have to be transferred onto double-wide rigs.

The trucks will take up two lanes and travel at 15 to 20 mph all the way across the state on Interstate 90, over Snoqual-mie Pass, then down Interstate 5 and onto Highway 16 – a trip likely to take four days.

The hassles involved – traffic tie-ups, police escorts and delays – are not ones the hauler is looking forward to, but they fit what is beginning to be a pattern.

“This whole project has been a nightmare for us,” said Mike Love, the owner of Big Boat Movers of Zavalla, Texas. “It has essentially bankrupted this company.”

On Thursday, it was not at all clear that Big Boat Movers was going to be the company making the final 300-mile leg of the trip.

Given enough time, Love says, he could assemble the necessary equipment to make the final push. And he plans to give it his best shot. But time is of the essence on the bridge project, which already is running four months behind schedule.

Meanwhile, Omega-Morgan Rigging & Industrial Contracting, a Tacoma company that specializes in moving industrial equipment, says it could have the joint on the road by Monday and in place at the Gig Harbor anchorage by Friday.

Marnie Nott, Omega’s administrative manager, said her company has the necessary hauling equipment in Eastern Washington and is ready and willing to take over from Big Boat.

Omega already has made a fallback deal with the joint’s manufacturer, the D.S. Brown Co., she said, and her company has submitted a permit application that the state Transportation Department has verbally approved.

“We’re here if they need us,” Nott said.

As with all of Tacoma Narrows Constructors’ direct subcontractors, D.S. Brown is legally required to coordinate public statements about the bridge project with TNC.

On Thursday, TNC’s spokeswoman Erin Hunter said only that “D.S. Brown is working with the proper authorities to ensure safe delivery of the expansion joints. They are working to fulfill their complex responsibilities as they pertain to the delivery and requirements necessary to deliver the expansion joint.”

Whoever drives the replacement rig, it is likely to be more than 100,000 pounds heavier than the one the joint is now sitting on, but total weight has never been the problem.

“The key is weight distribution,” Nott said. “This will spread the weight out on all axles evenly.”

Big Boat’s problems with the two joints began in Minnesota, when the company had to hustle them across the border to avoid that state’s “frost thaw” deadline, the day each year when the ice melts and the weight restrictions get more stringent.

Big Boat beat the deadline by two days with the first joint, which it parked in South Dakota, Love said, and it moved the second one out on the last possible day.

The joints weigh 100 tons but because they’re designed to be flexible, they had to be supported by a heavy rigid beam, which put the center of gravity so high it threatened to tip the truck over.

Meanwhile, Love, who also happens to be an attorney, is in a war of words with the Transportation Department, which refused to let his load farther across the border than the Liberty Lake weigh station 20 miles east of Spokane.

Love and others in the heavy-haul industry say Washington’s method of weighing the rig – with portable “jump scales” that weigh one wheel at a time, was inaccurate. Love is convinced the complex formula Washington uses to apply its restrictions is unreasonable and possibly illegal.

“We are like a thousand pounds over,” he said. “A tank of gas weighs about that much.

“I’m not sure that the law is being applied correctly,” he said, “because they’re applying it in a way no other state does.”

Transportation Secretary Doug MacDonald does not appreciate the criticism.

In a Viewpoint article Wednesday in The News Tribune, he said Big Boat movers had “made a mess of it” by arriving at the border with a rig that did not match the specifications in its permit.

The department is in an awkward position, because it is the agency overseeing the bridge project and is as eager as anybody else to see that the expansion joint arrive as quickly as possible.

“A lot of people at DOT are working very hard to find a solution to this, and we’re getting heat for being an overly stringent bureaucracy,” said Claudia Cornish, a department spokeswoman.

“But what would people say if we allowed this through and it ended up damaging one of our bridges? We want it to get here, but we want to get it legally, and that’s what we’re going to hold the truck to.”

Cornish said the Transportation Department has been “inundated” by truckers who support its stance.

“They say, ‘Don’t break the rules for them. We have to obey them, too,’” she said.

Not all truckers feel that way, however.

Bill Sinclair, owner of the Shelton-based company Heavy Equipment Hauling, has personally hauled some monster loads, including 200,000-pound windmill towers and an Abrams Tank retriever, a behemoth used to tow Abrams tanks.

He says the state should show a little humanity.

“They absolutely didn’t do the right thing by weighing it with jump scales,” he said. “They didn’t get it correct. The big loads never get accurately weighed. There’s just no way to do it.

“They should give the guy a break. This is going to put him out of business.”

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693

rob.carson@thenewstribune.com

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