Politicians, scientists, local leaders revisit Orting’s Bridge for Kids at summit

Marianne Smith says the picturesque view of Mount Rainier stopped her in her tracks as she headed to an Orting teaching job interview in 1984. And for 25 years after that, the same mountain kept her on her toes.

Smith worried about a volcanic eruption triggering a lahar and whether she could quickly evacuate her students from the Puyallup Valley floor. She felt helpless as news media in the mid-90s covered the “city at ground zero” while Orting schools struggled to pinpoint a solid emergency plan.

“We recognized a huge potential problem, but we had no idea how to deal with it,” Smith said at the Orting Emergency Evacuation Summit last week. “I was in kind of a crisis mode. I didn’t know what to do.”

Smith told attendees of the event that she always knew what 6,700 residents, especially schoolchildren, needed to get to high ground in the estimated 40 minutes it would take for the devastating flow of debris to strike: a pedestrian bridge.

That’s how the idea for the Bridge for Kids was born. But the estimated $40 million structure is easier to dream about than it is to build.

During Wednesday’s event, meant to re-invigorate support for the cause, Smith recalled looking out the window of her classroom at the high ground across the river that was so close, yet so far from reach.

“You could spit at the hill on the other side,” she said to the group, which included a mix of local and state government officials, scientists and community members.

For now, Bridge for Kids isn’t any closer to reality, after more than a decade of raising money and awareness. But Smith and other community leaders aren’t giving up.

State and federal grants have funded the Bridge for Kids’ preliminary design, which was on display and presented by consulting firm BergerABAM at the summit.

The renderings include two bridges, an overpass that crosses state Route 162 near Rocky Road Northeast and a low-profile suspension bridge over the Carbon River that spans the hill to the top of a plateau.

Bob Griebenow, project manager and vice president of BergerABAM, said during the summit that he hopes the project moves forward. He said the high price tag – an ongoing concern for project planners and community leaders – comes from unique design challenges, given the location and required capacity.

“No other bridge would see its full design capacity,” Griebenow said, noting that most bridges see an ebb and flow of traffic, not full capacity as this one would during an emergency. “At the time of evacuation you wouldn’t want that bridge to fail.”

Total capacity on the proposed bridge is about 12,000, about five times greater than the total number of students in the Orting School District; the bridge was designed with the expectation that more than just students would use it to evacuate. Griebenow said the 20- to 30-foot-wide bridge is designed to take all people across the river to safety in 30 minutes.

Chuck Morrison, Bridge for Kids committee president, is a Tacoma resident who said he supports the cause because he loves Orting.

Although none of the information presented at the summit was new, Morrison told The News Tribune that it was important to have all the important players in the room to hear the same message.

“That’s the first time that we got that information clearly across,” he said last week.

Morrison said it’s been a challenge to sell everyone on the idea of evacuating on foot, but it’s not a new idea.

“The school district has been leading the way on this,” he said, adding that school officials quickly learned during drills that evacuating with cars and buses won’t work. “We didn’t invent walking.”

Morrison understands that some believe $40 million could be better spent elsewhere, such as widening Route 162. Ultimately, he said, it’s hard to put a value on the ability to save thousands of lives.

“In my heart of hearts, I’ve put 12 years into the fact that they’re worth something,” Morrison said.

Smith said she’s overwhelmed by the community’s hard work, which raised more than $2 million in the early years of planning. But she acknowledged they’ve done all they can do.

“We’ve gone beyond what we can do as a citizens group,” Smith said at the event, adding that it’s time to “pass the torch” to leaders who get bridges built.

Bridge for Kids committee members aren’t sure what the future holds for the project, but Morrison rejects rumors he’s heard around town that the project has fizzled.

“Since the problem isn’t dead,” he said, “I don’t think Bridge for Kids is dead.”