New bridge a noisy neighbor

No end or fix in sight for annoying klunk

August 22, 2007 

Marilyn Bielstein thought the noise would stop when the second Narrows bridge opened last month.

The Gig Harbor woman and her husband, Larry, patiently endured the bolting, drilling and moving of parts during the span’s construction these past five years.

Then on July 16 – the first day vehicles could cross the mile-long bridge — the 69-year-old awoke to an unfamiliar sound from an all-too-familiar source.

This new noise from the bridge had no rhythm. One second there was a distinct klunk, the next it sounded like the whir of a giant percolator.

The clatter, according to the state Department of Transportation, is created when cars pass over each of the two 100-ton joints that help maintain the bridge’s flexibility. One is located at the west end, the other at the east end.

Some drivers might not notice the noise much when they cross, but the neighbors living closest to the parts sure do.

DOT reported that 41,241 vehicles drove the span between 4 a.m. and midnight on that first day. Each vehicle created the distinctive sound that, according to neighbors, hasn’t stopped since.

It’s almost constant during the morning rush hour, when hordes of commuters make their way to Tacoma. When the school year starts in a few weeks, the number of weekday trips will only increase.

Neighbors say the smallest cars make the loudest noise.

“To me, it sounds like a giant troll trapped in a box that’s trying to get out,” said Bielstein, who has lived near the Narrows some 19 years.

“I would like to see them, with their much-lauded engineering expertise, limit that noise,” she said of the state. “There must be something they can do.”

DOT spokeswoman Claudia Cornish said the state has yet to find a reasonable solution.

“We are open,” she said. “We just haven’t identified exactly what it is.”

State officials are not surprised by the noise, but they are by the reaction it has generated, Cornish said. They have received about a dozen e-mails from frustrated neighbors on both ends of the new $849 million bridge.

DOT dispatched its experts last month to measure the sound. They determined that although it’s an annoyance for neighbors, it isn’t loud enough to warrant mitigation, Cornish said.

Ron Landon, principal engineer at DOT’s Tacoma Narrows Bridge office, said the state has considered building sound barriers and putting a special coating on the joint. Neither option is viable, he said.

A wall or other barriers would simply deflect the noise, he said. There’s also the possibility of blocking some homeowners’ million-dollar views of the Narrows.

The coating might stop the noise, but it might not be durable enough to withstand thousands of vehicles every day.

The state must also maintain the bridge’s ability to expand and contract, Landon said.

“We certainly don’t want to compromise the joint,” he said.

This isn’t the first headache associated with the pair of joints, each measuring 70 feet long and 15 feet wide.

In March, the first piece was stranded at the Washington-Idaho border for more than three weeks because its Texas-based hauler ran afoul of state road weight restrictions and had trailer brake problems.

Finally, DOT hired Tacoma’s Omega-Morgan Rigging and Industrial Contractors. The company hauled both joints to the Narrows with no further problems.

The infamous part is now causing restless nights for neighbors on the Gig Harbor side of the new bridge.

About 20 of them contacted state Rep. Patricia Lantz, D-Gig Harbor, who visited their neighborhood. After the visit, she said the residents are living under “hellish circumstances.”

“That noise,” she said, “is like water torture.”

Lantz said she spoke to DOT engineers, who told her finding a solution wasn’t easy. Still, she said the state should find some way to help neighbors who patiently put up with the bridge’s construction in the belief that better days were ahead.

“Just because it isn’t impacting hundreds of people doesn’t mean we’re not responsible,” she said.

Paul Ramsdell, 50, is one of the frustrated neighbors on the Gig Harbor side. The Seattle Times sports copy editor was driving home July 16 when he first noticed the joint noise.

He parked in his garage and heard the sound, which he compared to someone driving across a cattle grate. He also likened it to living in a racquetball court surrounded by people playing at one-fourth normal speed.

Ramsdell, a former News Tribune copy editor, said he’s afraid it will never go away.

“I know they’re not going to redo the bridge for these neighbors here,” he said. “But I think they can come up with something, or at least try.”

Brent Champaco: 253-597-8653

brent.champaco@thenewstribune.com

WHY SO NOISY?

According to the state Department of Transportation, the two expansion joints help the new Narrows bridge expand and contract. They have steel ribs that look similar to an accordion.

Each time a vehicle drives over a joint, its tires hit the ribs, creating the noise, said Ron Landon, principal engineer at DOT’s Tacoma Narrows bridge office.

One reason smaller cars are more likely to make the loudest noise is that their tires get briefly caught between the steel ribs, he said. Tires on semi-trucks and other large vehicles are too large to get caught.

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