Plans to replace the 788-foot timber bridge over Henderson Bay that connects Raft Island to the outskirts of Gig Harbor are moving ahead, even as one outspoken community member continues to publicly question the project.
Richard Swenson, the president of the Raft Island Improvement Association Board of Directors, said the project is coming to fruition. He dismissed the concerns of Tim Whitmore, a retired engineer who says association members don’t understand the technical issues of constructing a new bridge and are in danger of producing an old-fashioned structure that will have about half the longevity of a modern span.
“We’ve had a very methodical process here that’s involved a lot of different people on the island with a lot of different skill sets,” Swenson said. “Now we’ve got the vote to move forward.”
Whitmore, a former lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard who earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Utah in 1987, said he offered his services as a volunteer last summer and was eventually kicked off the new bridge’s engineering committee in favor of people who don’t have a background in engineering.
“They took the first opportunity as a pretext to claim I was too aggressive and rude in pointing out what was wrong,” Whitmore said. “They were so hypersensitive to that, that they made it clear they were not going to continue to work with me.”
“Tim has not been part of our process and has attended very few board meetings,” Swenson said. “He doesn’t have knowledge of the project. He’s been reading committee minutes, but beyond that, he has not been involved in the project. I haven’t seen an email from him in six months.”
In September, the RIIA approved a move on Phase II to replace the aging bridge. It includes engineers’ work to design, permit and put the project out to bid.
Since the bridge was constructed in 1958, the RIIA has collected funds to maintain the privately owned span. It connects the private island in the Pierce County community of Rosedale to the Gig Harbor peninsula.
Annual engineering inspections are performed to ensure the safety and performance of the structure. Annual repairs typically are budgeted and completed the following year.
In 1996, the RIIA recommended and approved a vote to establish a Bridge Replacement Fund, whereby, in addition to regular management dues, an investment strategy was created to fund the future reconstruction of a new Raft Island bridge.
In 2011, the Raft Island Bridge Committee reported that, based on rising maintenance costs, engineering expenses, insurance fees, permitting and construction repairs needed to keep the bridge structurally sound, RIIA membership dues were not keeping up.
In the past 10 years, there have been repairs that totaled about $624,000. The work to solicit bids, review engineering estimates and supervise has been done by volunteers.
But as the bridge continues to age, the repairs are becoming more critical, and more costly.
REHABILITATION VS. REPLACEMENT
It was estimated the cost to design, engineer, permit, manage, mobilize, supervise and repair the bridge every few years would be more than double the cost to replace the bridge. By 2018, officials projected annual dues increases needed to continue for bridge maintenance actually could cost more than the annual dues that would be needed to construct a new one.
In February 2011, members of the bridge committee presented their recommendation to the RIIA Board of Directors. After extensive discussion, both groups unanimously voted to recommend moving to the next phase to replace the Raft Island bridge.
A majority vote in favor of replacing the bridge directed the bridge committee and board to research funding options, legal advice, tax considerations and engineering consultants services — Phase I of the project — at a cost of $150,000.
After collecting some $1.2 million, the RIIA applied for and was awarded two U.S. Department of Agriculture loans that totaled $4.8 million. The low rates — 3.72 percent fixed maximum — and 30-year term means homeowners will have predictable monthly dues and a brand new bridge.
“We’re very fortunate to discover some funding by the USDA,” Swenson said, adding near-term financing is courtesy of Northwest Farm Credit of Spokane.
Based on preliminary cost estimates to reconstruct the span, Swenson said he thinks monthly bridge dues will remain about the same.
Annual dues for 2013 total $1,834, including $484 for the Bridge Replacement Fund, $785 for the 2011 bridge assessment and $565 in Raft Island management fees.
“We’re hoping it comes in under $6 million,” Swenson said of the estimated total cost of the project. “Preliminary estimates are between $5.7 and $5.8 million.”
Exeltech Consulting, a Lacey-based construction management services company, came up with a $5.7 million estimate last year.
Whitmore said Exeltech’s estimate for only one design type is incomplete, because labor and materials for backfilling the pilings have not been included, and neither has the necessary excavation at the bridgeheads. He said his research shows a modern bridge can be built for $4.4 million, provided there is no overhead from subcontractors.
In September 2011, the bridge committee posted a Request for Qualifications to solicit an “owner-representative” to assist RIIA by acting as project manager. A contract with Gig Harbor-based Baillie & Associates was approved in March to manage Phase I work — geo-technical analysis, topographic survey, mapping validation and preliminary analysis for a preferred bridge design — and it was passed by ballot vote in May 2011. That work was completed in August.
In November, the board approved a contract with Roger Hansen of HJJ Architects of Fife to act as “owner rep” for subsequent phases.
“We need to have somebody be a bulldog to manage this project,” Swenson said. “We need somebody to manage the pieces.”
He called Hansen the “liaison between the engineer and ourselves.”
Whitmore also was critical of Hansen’s selection.
“That architect has no business being a project manager on a project like this,” said Whitmore, who wrote a letter to Hansen in November to request information on his qualifications, skill set and expertise on the Raft Island bridge project.
Swenson said Hansen led last year’s successful Treasure Island bridge replacement project near Grapeview in Mason County, on time and within budget.
On Nov. 2, Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One issued a public safety order, compelling the RIIA to get a structure test to determine the bridge’s load capacity by March 1.
Whitmore contends that, under current state rules, a structure test requires a soil sample for every 100 feet of the 788-foot-long span, and he said the RIIA has not taken the required number of samples.
Swenson said three soil samples were taken during Phase I of the project to get an idea of cost related to the structure test that needs to be produced for the fire department.
Whitmore said the soil samples the RIIA took do not support the design of a more economical modern bridge with longer spans and greater resistance to seismic loading, instead favoring a more old-fashioned design that would cost more because of increased labor costs to build such a span.
“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Whitmore said.
He said if Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One “holds the line,” the department will “reject that and require that they do it right.
“That would delay the project,” Whitmore said.
Swenson said the structure test will help determine the bridge’s current load capacity rating and will have no affect on the construction of a new bridge.
“If there is an issue,” he said, “our engineer will make a recommendation.”
A letter will be issued to the fire department regarding the bridge’s load capacity in a couple weeks, Swenson said.
“It’s something we have to do,” he said.
The bridge’s last load rating report was completed in 2005 by Sargent Engineers.
“We’re just trying to make sure it’s safe for our current apparatus,” said Eric Watson, an assistant chief for Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One. “We have not had any problems.”
Swenson remained cautiously optimistic about the project’s timeline.
“If everything goes smoothly ... we hope to move forward as early as October on construction,” he said of what he characterized as an “aggressive schedule.”
Construction should take about six months, he said.
“It’s a pretty big deal for us, spending that kind of money to build a bridge,” Swenson said. “We’re letting people know what’s going on, especially area homeowners. There’s a plan in place, and we’re moving forward.”
If all goes as planned, Swenson said, the community could celebrate a new bridge that will last 75 years by early 2015 or sooner.
Whitmore remains skeptical of an October start date.
Since the RIIA is not applying for a state Department of Fish and Wildlife waiver for completing soil samples this winter, there would be no way to meet the fire department’s March 1 deadline, he said. Obtaining the waiver is the only way to ensure construction couldn’t be completed next summer before material prices go up due to Hurricane Sandy, he said, adding two Fish & Wildlife seasons have elapsed since May 2011, when the RIIA was supposed to start taking soil samples for the new bridge.
Whitmore predicted Gig Harbor property values will not appreciate until the problem is solved.
Reporter Brett Davis can be reached at 253-358-4151 or by email at email@example.com.