At last, it’s good to go

Opening day arrives for new Tacoma Narrows bridge

July 15, 2007 

Bring on the crowds.

The roadway is freshly striped, the massive towers and cables glisten with fresh paint, the mile-long swath of asphalt practically begs to be used.

After nearly five years of construction, the new Tacoma Narrows bridge is at last finished and will open today for public inspection.

“It’s a day that belongs to the people,” said Manuel Rondon, who managed the project for Tacoma Narrows Constructors, the Bechtel-Kiewit partnership that built the bridge.

State Department of Transportation officials expect between 20,000 and 40,000 people to take the opportunity for a free, one-day-only stroll back and forth across the bridge before the new span opens to toll-paying traffic tonight.

It’s a chance for pedestrians to see up close one of the most unusual and complex civil engineering achievements in Washington state history.

With a suspended midspan of 2,800 feet, the new bridge is the largest built in America since New York’s Verrazano Narrows Bridge in 1964. Construction consumed millions of pounds of steel, thousands of cubic yards of concrete and more than 3.5 million hours of labor.

Transportation Department volunteers worked all day Saturday readying tents, programs and chairs for today’s celebration. Preparations were expected to continue through the night.

“Our main concern is at this point is the weather,” DOT spokeswoman Claudia Cornish said Saturday evening. “People need to know that it will be probably be very hot out there.

“The deck has black asphalt on it and really absorbs the heat. They need to bring water and be prepared to be self-sufficient.”

The day will start with an 8 a.m. run across the bridge and back, a benefit for the neonatal intensive care unit at Tacoma General Hospital.

At 3:40 p.m. Saturday, 20 minutes before registration for the run closed, a steady stream of runners continued to arrive at the Tacoma Community College race headquarters to sign up.

“We’re going to top 10,000 people, easy,” said Mark Shields, director of special events at MultiCare Health System. “We’ve had lines like this all day long.”

In keeping with Transportation Department Secretary Doug MacDonald’s wishes, today’s celebration will be light on pontificating politicians.

The official dedication ceremony at 1:30 p.m. will feature brief remarks by Gov. Chris Gregoire, but a dozen workers who helped build the bridge will be the ones who cut the official ribbon.

The only other official events planned are a brief ceremonial drive through the tollbooths at 9:30 a.m. by State Treasurer Mike Murphy and House Speaker Frank Chopp, riding in a 1923 Lincoln touring car that, legend has it, was the first vehicle to cross both the 1950 bridge and its ill-fated 1940 predecessor, Galloping Gertie.

At 10:15 a.m. a “Bridge of Faith” remembrance will honor the late Sen. Bob Oke, Rep. Ruth Fisher and others.

The deck will be open to the public, free of charge, from 10 a.m. until 3:30 p.m.

At 4 p.m. the celebration ends, and crews will begin cleaning up and preparing to open the new bridge to traffic. That’s going to involve a considerable amount of shuffling concrete barriers and restriping, which TNC crews will work on tonight.

Monday morning, if all goes as planned, all six tollbooth lanes will be open, along with two transponder-only lanes, which will allow drivers to bypass the tollbooths.

Heading the other way, all traffic on the old bridge will move toward Gig Harbor and Kitsap County. The new alignment will include two open lanes and one car-pool lane. The fourth lane on the old bridge (on the far left) will be closed for several months while TNC does reconstruction work.

Despite the broad expanse of fresh asphalt on the new bridge, few expect clear sailing for traffic Monday morning.

The combination of new ramps, tolls, transponders and unfamiliar turns is certain to slow morning commutes this week, and could cause long backups.

“There’s a lot happening at once,” said Linea Laird, who until recently was the state’s Narrows Bridge project manager and now is the state construction engineer.

“In addition to the new bridge, we have new manual booths opening, and there’s going to be a learning curve there, for drivers as well as toll takers,” she said. “And we’ve got a new ramp opening at 24th Street.”

Police in Gig Harbor say they’ll be watching for temper flare-ups when the bridge opens Monday.

For at least the first part of this week, the Washington State Patrol will assign four troopers to the Gig Harbor area. The city will assign two patrol units to monitor its streets.

Police Chief Mike Davis said he’s hoping for a smooth transition, but authorities expect backups from the tollbooths to clog city streets.

“It’s going to be an environment that could spawn road rage and frustration among drivers,” Davis said.

Laird agreed the traffic situation could be challenging.

“I can see Gig Harbor sorting itself out again while people choose the route that’s going to make the most sense for them,” Laird said. “My advice is, give it some time.”

OPENING-DAY SCHEDULE

Today’s schedule of events for the opening-day celebration of the new Tacoma Narrows bridge:

8 to 10 a.m.: 5K Narrows bridge run-walk

9:30 a.m.: “First toll” ceremony (toll plaza on Gig Harbor side)

10 a.m.: Bridge deck opens to public.

10:15 a.m.: “Bridge of Faith” remembrance ceremony (Gig Harbor side)

1:30 p.m.: Official bridge dedication and ribbon-cutting (Tacoma side)

3 p.m.: Last shuttle bus to bridge leaves from designated parking lots in Tacoma and Gig Harbor.

3:45 p.m.: Bike path dedication (Tacoma side)

4 p.m.: Celebration ends.

Shuttle bus schedule

Bridge walk-run: Buses will run every 10 minutes from 5:30 to 10 a.m. from the Tacoma Community College transit center, 6501 S. 19th St., to the starting line at War Memorial Park off Jackson Avenue.

Bridge celebration: Buses will run every 15 minutes from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. from TCC; the Tacoma Narrows Airport, 1202 26th Ave. N.W., Gig Harbor; and Gig Harbor High School, 5101 Rosedale St. N.W., Gig Harbor.

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