Neighbors frustrated, but railroad says Saltar’s Point bridge could be rebuilt in 2014

Staff writerFebruary 4, 2014 

Saltar’s Point Park in Steilacoom has been closed since September 2012 when a train passing under the bridge snagged an illegally placed fiber optic cable. The bridge was damaged, making it unsafe for people to cross. Owner Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad might rebuild the bridge this year.

BRYNN GRIMLEY/STAFF WRITER

Yellow caution tape flutters like forgotten party streamers. Barricades with wide orange stripes guard a locked chain link gate.

The message is clear: Saltar’s Point Park on the Steilacoom waterfront is closed.

What’s much less clear is when it will reopen.

Access to the quaint residential park has been blocked since September 2012 when a passing train clipped a fiber optic cable on the pedestrian bridge leading to the beach. Damage was deemed severe enough that the bridge and park were closed until a new crossing could be built.

Asked when it would reopen, a spokesman for the railroad that owns the walkway over the tracks said construction “could occur this year.”

Neighbors near the bridge are organizing a “call to action” and have passed fliers around the neighborhood. They plan to attend the town’s regular council meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday to show their dissatisfaction with delays.

Saltar’s Point Park was a regular stop for people on neighborhood walks, a place for children on field trips to learn about marine life, and a destination for visitors coming to watch the sunset or play on the beach.

The only legal way to reach the rocky beach is by crossing the pedestrian bridge and taking stairs down to the property.

When the bridge was closed in fall 2012, town officials estimated the park would reopen by spring 2013. Neighbors are frustrated that the barricades are still up, and they say little information is available about when a new bridge will be built.

“I’ve gone to numerous (town) council meetings and said something,” said Thomas Kurtz who lives roughly 50 feet from the bridge. “Nobody has made any kind of attempt to communicate with me about this and what is going on, or any of the other neighbors either.”

Kurtz has a rhetorical question for the town and railroad: Does the broken bridge pose a risk to the roughly 60 to 70 freight trains — some carrying volatile oil — that pass under it daily? Could the vibrations of those trains, or an earthquake, cause the structure to fall and block the tracks?

If the answer is no, Kurtz wants to know why people aren’t allowed to cross it on foot.

The bridge is closed for liability reasons, Town Mayor Ron Lucas said. A structural engineer inspected the walkway after it was damaged, and the report resulted in the closure, he said. There are gaps between the walkway and the pillars that hold it up, Lucas said.

Neighbor Beth Whitney-Teeple has also sent letters to town officials expressing concern about the extended closure. She hadn’t heard back until recently when Councilwoman Nancy Henderson expressed a desire to improve the closed bridge’s appearance.

Others have testified repeatedly at Town Council meetings, expressing frustration with what they say appears to be a lack of progress in constructing a new bridge.

Lucas disagrees that the town has stayed mum on the bridge. He provides updates at the end of every council meeting, he said, adding that people often don’t stick around to hear what he has to say.

As far as why it’s taken so long to replace the bridge, Lucas said: “The process has moved on at a pace that we don’t control.”

The bridge is owned by BNSF railway. The project was slowed initially because there was disagreement about ownership; once it was learned the railroad had to replace the structure, work has continued at a steady pace, Lucas said.

“They’re a big company doing a lot of big things, but it’s not that they have not been working on this project,” Lucas said of BNSF.

The town’s public works director has worked with railroad engineers on bridge design, and a final draft will likely be presented in early February, Lucas said.

It’s expected to include an accessible viewing platform that meets Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, said BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas. The old bridge was not equipped for the disabled, he said.

BNSF will pay for the new bridge but will pass ownership and maintenance responsibilities to the town, Melonas said.

Saltar’s Point Park features a picnic shelter, 500 feet of saltwater shoreline and two stone buildings from the 1930s. It’s modest in size compared with Sunnyside Beach Park on the other side of town, which boasts 140 parking stalls, beach volleyball, playgrounds, picnic shelters and significant beach frontage.

While Saltar’s Point neighbors remain frustrated, Lucas said he’s satisfied with how things have progressed.

“These things sometimes take time,” he said. “The schedule will be given to us when it is complete by the railroad.”

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

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