A century-old Tacoma bridge, at one time a candidate for demolition, began a new life Friday, once again connecting downtown Tacoma with the Tideflats.
The barricades that had blocked access to the Murray Morgan Bridge for six years were moved aside at 12:21 p.m. and traffic flowed on East 11th Street above the BNSF Railway mainline, Dock Street and the Thea Foss Waterway.
The bridge’s reopening after a two-year, $57 million rehabilitation project was unmarked by any formal festivities. Those are scheduled for Feb. 15.
After state inspectors closed the bridge because of dangerous deterioration in 2007, the city considered razing the structure. A determined local citizen effort urged the city to rehabilitate it instead. The rehab costs were paid for with a combination of federal, state and local funds.
Tacoma pawnbroker David Cheney’s van was the first four-wheeled vehicle to cross the renewed roadway. A motorcyclist who identified himself only as Joel had sped across before him.
With Cheney was his friend Neil Wacht, Cheney’s daughter Scarlet and their 4-year-old schnauzer, Kleiner.
“I heard it was opening, and I wanted to be part of it,” said Cheney.
The bridge that emerged from the construction project still has the classic profile of the vertical-lift bridge that was the main connection between Tacoma’s port and industrial area for decades. But the renewed bridge’s job will be considerably different.
The rehabbed bridge, said project engineer Tom Rutherford, is expected to handle about 5,000 vehicles a day, compared with 15,000 vehicles a day when the old bridge was in its heyday.
Besides being the main access point to the Tideflats, the 11th Street corridor was the principal connection between Tacoma and Northeast Tacoma. That changed when 11th Street’s Blair Bridge was removed over the port’s main waterway because the drawbridge was too narrow for modern shipping traffic. That bridge was replaced — not with a taller, wider bridge, but by the state Route 509 freeway that skirts the southern end of the port’s waterways.
The lower traffic count allowed the city to narrow the Murray Morgan Bridge’s width to two lanes from four and convert the unused lanes into bicycle and pedestrian pathways.
The new bridge retains the old bridge’s vertical lift center span to allow tall vessels to exit and enter the south end of the Thea Foss Waterway. The bridge tender’s control house won’t be occupied full time. Vessel captains wanting the bridge to open must schedule an opening at least two hours in advance by phoning a call center.
Murray Morgan, a Tacoma historian, journalist and author, after whom the bridge is now named, once was a bridge tender on the structure.
Rutherford said that with the bridge center span closed only vessels with masts more than 60 feet above the water at high tide need request an opening. Only a handful of sailboats moored south of the bridge have masts that tall, he said.
For property and business owners on the east side of the bridge, its reopening will make personal access easier and could bring new business.
Dave Bingham, co-owner of Johnny’s Dock restaurant on East D Street, said the bridge’s reopening will improve access from downtown Tacoma.
“It will make access from those offices just that much easier,” he said.
The restaurant in the last few years was affected not only by the Murray Morgan Bridge’s closing, but also by the construction of the D Street Bridge over the BNSF tracks.
Clare Petrich, a Port of Tacoma commissioner who owns waterfront property just south of the bridge’s east approach, said the bridge’s closure drove some merchants to close or relocate to other parts of town. In 2008, after state safety inspectors closed the Murray Morgan Bridge, four merchants on the east side of the Foss — Suradi Imports, Tahoma Imports, Rain Dragon Antiquities, and Dockmandu — moved to Sixth Avenue.
“There are a lot of smiles on the faces of people on this side of the Foss” with the reopening of the bridge, said Petrich.
Young Choe, owner of Sam’s Cafe near the bridge’s eastern approach, said the cafe’s business fell when the bridge closed. In the last two years, she said, her business has been bolstered, however, by construction workers from the bridge.
“I’m happy to see that it’s open again,” she said.
Tom Rogers, president of the Tacoma Youth Marine Center on East D Street, said the bridge’s opening will make the center’s youth marine education programs much more available to low-income youths. Those youths can now take a bus downtown and walk a few blocks across the bridge to the center. When the bridge was closed, youths needed a car to get to the center.
At the Port of Tacoma, the bridge’s reopening has improved access for many port workers.
“For those of us who live in the North End, it will be a great convenience,” said port spokeswoman Tara Mattina.
The bridge won’t improve heavy truck access to the port’s terminals, however. Heavy trucks are banned from using the bridge.
The bridge’s reopening also enhances access by emergency vehicles to Tideflats’ offices and industries.
One significant new business, a distillery and restaurant, is considering buying a former industrial building just north of the bridge and repurposing the site.
here’s what $57 million spent on bridge bought
It’s taken two years and nearly $57 million to restore the 100-year-old Murray Morgan Bridge connecting downtown Tacoma to the Tideflats to like-new condition. What did taxpayers get for that expenditure? City of Tacoma project engineer Tom Rutherford outlined the changes and improvements:
• Nearly 1.5 million pounds of new steel. The 90-plus years of life had taken its toll on the drawbridge. State inspectors had rated the bridge structure a 2 on a 100-point scale before they closed it in 2007.
• New paint. The bridge had last been painted in the 1970s. Crews removed layers of paint, some of it lead-based, keeping the flakes from contaminating the Thea Foss Waterway below. The bridge, blue and gray when the project began, is now black, its original color.
• New roadway surfaces. The center span’s concrete was removed, a waterproof membrane was installed and new concrete laid. Asphalt was replaced on the two approaches.
• New lift machinery and controls. Just before the project was to begin, thieves stripped wiring from the bridge control house and damaged its ancient lift motors. New wiring, cables, motors and computerized controls now lift the center span for tall boat access.
• Elevator access between the bridge deck and Dock Street. A new elevator is being installed on the bridge’s north side. That elevator will go into service in March. Formerly only stairs connected those levels.
• Realigned and balanced counterweights. Those counterweights, which help lift the span, now operate much more smoothly.
• New signage on the counterweights. The concrete counterweight on the bridge’s east end will have signage welcoming visitors to the Port of Tacoma. The counterweight on the opposite side will let visitors know they’re in the City of Tacoma. Sign painters will finish up when the weather dries.
• Access platforms for inspection and repair. Reaching the bridge’s underside 60 feet above the Thea Foss Waterway was difficult for inspectors and repair crews in the old configuration. New platforms make that job easier.
• Runoff collection basins. New environmental rules require bridge runoff to be captured and treated before it enters the waterway. Holding tanks and filters on the bridge’s west side handle the job there, and a rain garden treats runoff from the bridge’s east side.
• New bike and pedestrian paths. Two lanes of the formerly four-lane bridge have been converted to bike and pedestrian paths. The deteriorated sidewalks once cantilevered from the bridge have been removed. The bridge will handle two lanes of vehicular traffic, sufficient capacity for the 5,000 vehicles that are expected to use it each day. When East 11th Street was the main access across the Tideflats, the bridge handled 15,000 vehicles a day. Now state Route 509 handles the main cross-Tideflats traffic.
• Historic design streetlights. The design of those lights replicates lights in use 100 years ago, but their technology is 21st century. The light they produce is generated by energy-efficient, long-lasting light-emitting diodes.
• Seismic reinforcements. The bridge structure was updated to modern earthquake standards.John Gillie: 253-597-8663 firstname.lastname@example.org Staff writer C.R. Roberts contributed to this report. email@example.com