If things had gone the way the state Department of Transportation wanted, construction of the first of two new Interstate 5 bridges over the Puyallup River would have begun last summer.
Construction was fully funded at $470 million, and all the pieces seemed in place to have the northbound bridge finished and open to traffic in 2015.
Instead, the bridge projects are stalled out, Transportation Department officials say — delayed for at least two years with no definite start date in sight.
The delay will drive up construction costs by about $20 million, according to the department. It will prolong the chronic congestion that snarls traffic on the I-5 corridor through Tacoma, and it will keep 189,000 daily drivers on the existing bridges, which engineers say do not meet current earthquake resistance standards.
Frustrated state officials are blaming the holdup on the Puyallup Tribe of Indians’ Tribal Council, which they say inexplicably went into silent mode on the construction project 20 months ago.
The tribe owns land within the footprint of the new bridges, which are to be built just slightly upstream of the current I-5 crossing. The tribe also has jurisdiction over the portion of the Puyallup River where the state wants to sink bridge support piers and demolish the existing bridges.
State officials say the tribe has ignored its requests to negotiate a mitigation agreement, consequently delaying approval of easements and construction permits that the state must get from the tribe.
“We’ve tried to engage the Tribal Council in negotiations to finalize the agreement, but they have not responded,” Transportation Department spokeswoman Claudia Bingham Baker said last week. “The result is that we still do not have an agreement, without which we cannot move forward with the projects.”
John Weymer, a spokesman for the Puyallup Tribe, said the Tribal Council is not intentionally delaying the project. While the council might not be moving as quickly as the state would like, he said, it has not been wasting time.
“We’re all in favor of this project,” Weymer said. “We’re just trying to do our due diligence about what the effects will be.”
The new freeway bridges will cut through the heart of the tribe’s most historically significant area, Weymer said, and therefore they are of high importance to all tribal members.
Part of the delay, he said, has been due to the Tribal Council’s efforts to engage members and keep them informed. A Tribal Council election in June also delayed action, Weymer said.
According to Weymer, the tribe’s biggest concerns have to do with protecting water quality in the river, maintaining access to the river for fishermen and ensuring that culturally significant property will be treated with respect.
“The tribe has not been unreasonable in this,” Weymer said, “We just want to make sure everything is done right. I think we’re very, very close right now.”
Such assurances are beginning to sound familiar to the folks at the Transportation Department.
All of the tribe’s concerns are addressed in a draft agreement worked out by state staff members and a committee of tribal representatives. The Tribal Council has had the draft since April 16, 2012, but has made no official reaction to it despite the urgings of two governors, the transportation secretary and members of Washington’s congressional delegation.
Gov. Jay Inslee met with the tribe in May and reportedly received verbal assurance that all was well. But nothing has happened since then.
“Our attempts to engage after that meeting didn’t bear fruit,” Transportation Program Director John Wynands said. “We’ve had no response back from them.”
The state’s plan is to build the northbound bridge, then use it to carry northbound and southbound traffic while the existing bridges are torn down and the southbound bridge constructed.
The timing is complicated by the fact that, because of potential effects on fish, work in the water can be undertaken only during July, August and September.
After meeting with the Tribal Council, Weymer indicated Friday that members were ready to move forward with negotiation.
“There could be something signed as soon as Tuesday,” he predicted.
Once that happens, Weymer said, “We feel the negotiations will go quite quickly. I think both parties are pretty close.”Rob Carson: 253-597-8693 rob.carson@ thenewstribune.com