Raft Island Bridge project looks ‘impossible’ no more

Building new crossing to Gig Harbor Peninsula makes progress, despite critics

brynn.grimley@thenewstribune.comDecember 27, 2013 

For two weeks this month, the echo of heavy machinery ricocheted off the otherwise tranquil shoreline between Raft Island and the mainland.

The rhythmic pounding of the diesel-powered hammer was music to the ears of some residents of the private island, 5.5 miles from Gig Harbor.

Putting 30 piles in the water was visible progress that a new, 757-foot bridge will soon stretch from Raft Island to the Rosedale area on the western edge of the peninsula. It will replace an old 788-foot timber-trestle bridge built in 1957.

“It’s the biggest thing to happen around here in 60 years, since the last bridge went in,” said Raft Island resident Tom Straub. “It really looked impossible for a long time.”

It looked impossible because the burden of the bridge, including deciding whether to replace it and then raising $6.5 million to do so, fell on the roughly 700 people who call the 160-acre island their home.

“How to build a bridge by a committee of people that don’t know that much about construction is a challenge,” said Rich Swenson, island resident and head of the Raft Island Improvement Association’s bridge committee. “You can maintain the old one, so it was somewhat controversial for a number of years.”

The Raft Island Bridge story illustrates the daunting expense associated with some of Pierce County’s waterfront communities. The views might be priceless, but the price tag of enjoying them has a real impact that doesn’t stop with the toll to cross the Tacoma Narrows bridge.

The story also shows the cost of autonomy. When you live on a private island, you share responsibility for keeping it safe. That means making sure roads and bridges are strong enough for emergency vehicles to get there.

BURDEN FOR SOME

It’s no wonder the cost of living on Raft Island can be hard for residents who are retired and on fixed incomes.

Raft Island’s infrastructure is paid for and maintained by the people who own the roughly 220 lots on the island. Property owners pay annual dues that cover maintenance costs. That includes repairs to the aging bridge and its creosote-covered wood piles.

The old bridge was built before many of the island’s inhabitants found their way to the idyllic community with its stunning views of Henderson Bay and the Olympic Mountains.

Earlier this year, Gig Harbor Fire & Medic One said it wouldn’t send its water tender trucks or firetrucks over the bridge. In January, fire officials determined it wouldn’t support the weight of their heavier vehicles.

“There was a period of time there when we couldn’t drive our vehicles across,” said Division Chief Eric Waters.

The island’s board approved emergency repairs. Access was limited for a couple of months, during which there were no significant incidents that required firetrucks, Waters said. Had there been a fire, crews would have had to dump water to cross the bridge, or leave their trucks and walk, he said.

Fire officials can’t risk injury to employees or damage to equipment paid for with public money, Waters said.

The situation on Raft Island prompted the fire district to implement a broad policy stating owners of private bridges and culverts in the Gig Harbor area must get them inspected every five years and provide a report. Inspections are voluntary, but if a crossing isn’t posted with a department-approved weight-limit sign, emergency responders will not cross with their heavy rigs, Waters said.

There are 32 private bridges or culverts that the department knows of in its 54-square-mile coverage area. The department will not cross 11 of them because they have no proof of inspection. Others have restrictions, Waters said.

Raft Island residents made the decision to replace their bridge before the fire district’s policy was in place. Fire officials never said replacing the span was required, only that it be strong and safe enough to drive across.

The decision to build a new bridge was not reached easily, or quickly. People with little knowledge of bridge engineering or construction were tasked with making it.

DIVISIVE ISSUE

It was a divisive issue for the small island where most neighbors know each other.

The majority of property owners who pay dues to the improvement association voted to build, but a fraction felt a new structure was an unnecessary expense. They preferred maintaining the old span.

“Some of us felt there was an agenda, that the board had to justify a decision they had already made,” said resident Gene Barkin.

Barkin said he never opposed building a new bridge but wanted to make sure all options were explored.

“I said if there is a meaningful alternative that would save the island a lot of money, that’s what I support,” Barkin said.

In 1996, the island’s improvement association — similar to a homeowner’s association — created a separate bridge replacement fund. Members began paying into this fund, in addition to regular dues, knowing the bridge would have to be replaced some day.

In February 2011, the association board voted to replace the bridge. The majority of dues-paying members backed that decision three months later at the annual membership meeting when they voted 116-33 to replace it. Around the same time another fee was added to the annual dues because anticipated construction costs were rising faster than expected.

Residents pay two bridge-related fees and a $565 annual membership fee. Bridge fees were $1,269 in 2013.

Home values range from the mid-$200,000s to $1 million. Not everyone is able to make the annual association payments, and some homes are in foreclosure, according to Pierce County tax records.

Everyone pays the same amount in bridge fees, regardless of their property value.

Despite complaints from a handful of neighbors who say the process was biased, Swenson said board members did their best to look at all sides. Consultants were hired to explore the options.

One study said it was possible to replace the aging pilings. Another showed repair costs would eventually surpass the cost to build a new bridge.

“I think we went way above and beyond,” said Swenson, who not only leads the bridge committee but is also vice president of the improvement association board.

“We probably spent more money than we needed to (on studies), but we wanted to answer everyone’s questions.”

In the end, the appeal of a new bridge with minimal maintenance costs over 30 or more years was preferred by board members.

The improvement association hired architect Roger Hansen to guide them. Hansen lives on an island in Mason County that faced a similar scenario and needed to replace its aging bridge.

“There’s a point where your costs outweigh the cost to rebuild,” Hansen said. “And you can’t get loans for maintenance and repairs.”

After deciding to build a new bridge, the association explored how to pay for it. The prospect of fluctuating interest on an adjustable-rate-mortgage loan was not well-received.

Members reached out to Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair. Dicks, who has since retired, connected them with a federal loan program and they qualified to borrow $5.7 million. The fixed-rate, low-interest loans swayed more Raft Island residents.

A total of 141 ballots were cast for the final phase to build the bridge — 126 supported it, 15 were opposed. There are roughly 200 homes on the island.

“The people who live here today pay for the bridge, the people who live here in 10 years pay for the bridge, and the people who live here in 30 years pay for the bridge,” Swenson said.

STABLE BRIDGE DUES EXPECTED

The total amount island residents will pay will be determined next year once the project is done. Swenson guessed property owners would pay close to what they’re paying now. Monthly bridge dues would be capped at $130, he said.

Barkin, who wanted an option that would help save money, supported the decision to rebuild the bridge because of the federal loan guarantee and its low-interest rates. It was the best financial option available at the time, he said.

He’d like to see residents’ bridge payments made proportional to property values, similar to how taxes are determined, but that idea hasn’t been well received, he said. He also wishes the county would have helped cover the cost through property tax revenues.

One neighbor who has strenuously opposed the bridge is Tim Whitmore.

Whitmore, who built his home and moved onto Raft Island in 2008, has frequently sent emails to Raft Island residents and association board members questioning the bridge design and how the project has proceeded. He sent emails to county planners, state and county politicians, and state transportation and fish and wildlife officials, raising technical issues about structural engineering and construction.

He also filed a complaint with a state licensing board against the firm hired to design the new bridge. The complaint is under review.

Whitmore believes the bridge under construction is not the best the island could get, and he’s upset the two-lane structure lacks a dedicated pedestrian lane.

“I’m a father. I have two kids who are 5 and 7, and I have to walk them across the bridge every day to get to the bus stop,” Whitmore said. “Back in the ’50s when they built the old bridge, they didn’t even think about pedestrian lanes.”

Whitmore thinks county code was ignored when pedestrian lanes were omitted from the new bridge design. But county development engineering manager Mitchell Brells said pedestrian lanes or sidewalks are not required based on county road standards.

The island’s improvement association was granted a deviation to build the bridge slightly narrower than code requires. The request was done to save money and stay within the footprint of the old bridge.

“It’d be nice to have sidewalks and that kind of thing,” Swenson said, “but at the end of the day, we’re struggling to fit the bridge in a comfort zone that all homeowners on the island can pay.”

MEETS REQUIREMENTS

The bridge meets county, state and federal road standards and was vetted through 26 agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Fish and Wildlife and Transportation departments.

After three years of trying to get the bridge built, Swenson said when the first piles were going in earlier this month, it seemed surreal.

“I sent an email out the other day saying, ‘I think we might actually build this thing.’”

Swenson said “it’s a relief” knowing the bridge will be in operation by next year.

The old bridge will be demolished next summer, which is the next time work can be done in the water, according to fish and wildlife regulations.

“It’s nice to be able to talk about other issues on the island like speed bumps, dogs — you know, normal homeowners association issues,” Swenson said.

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467 brynn.grimley@thenewstribune.com

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