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Fox Island residents to Pierce County: ‘We don’t want to be Mercer Island’

An overflow crowd fills the Nichols Community Center Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016 on Fox Island. Islanders were there to hear plans to repair or replace the 62-year-old bridge that connects the island to the mainland.
An overflow crowd fills the Nichols Community Center Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2016 on Fox Island. Islanders were there to hear plans to repair or replace the 62-year-old bridge that connects the island to the mainland. Staff writer

Fox Island residents know the 62-year-old bridge that connects them to the mainland needs to be replaced, but they don’t want to be priced off the island to pay for the multimillion dollar improvements.

“I think most people are worried about the funding,” said island resident Buddy Keller.

Keller joined an overflow crowd at the island’s Nichols Community Center on Tuesday. The center was so packed for the meeting, people were 10-deep in the hallways and had to stand on picnic tables outside to peer through open windows.

Possible improvements range from rehabilitating the bridge for $20 million, rehabilitating and retrofitting the structure for $60 million or building a new bridge, which could cost from $127 million to $168 million depending on design.

I think most people are worried about the funding.”

Buddy Keller, Fox Island resident

Facing sticker shock, some islanders told county officials they don’t want Fox Island to become Mercer Island, referring to the upscale community sandwiched between Bellevue and Seattle on Lake Washington.

Keller, 33, echoed a similar concern after the meeting. He supports building a new bridge, saying it makes the most sense long term, but if the majority of the estimated cost falls to island residents he doesn’t know whether his family could afford to stay on the island.

“We have to figure out a way to get it paid for,” he said.

Despite Pierce County officials cautioning it’s too early to discuss funding options, islanders pressed for answers as the meeting wore on Tuesday night. County officials said some possibilities include tolling the bridge or levying a tax against island property values.

Pierce County faces a unique challenge with the 1,950-foot-long-bridge that connects the island to the Gig Harbor peninsula.

The island’s residential makeup and its lack of a commercial or economic center limits the likelihood it would be eligible for state or federal transportation grants, said Pierce County Councilman Derek Young.

“Local governments don’t build bridges like this. Ever,” the Gig Harbor Democrat said. “There is no frame of reference for this.”

Three years ago the county listed the bridge as structurally deficient after an underwater inspection found holes in its concrete footings. Despite a low rating (7.33 out of 100) the bridge is safe for the 6,600 vehicles that cross it daily.

The county doesn’t have money now to pay for improvements, Young said, but he promised the county would seek every opportunity to help shoulder the cost.

Local governments don’t build bridges like this. Ever. There is no frame of reference for this.

Pierce County Councilman Derek Young, D-Gig Harbor

“Looking at the financial side of this, it’s a huge uphill battle for sure,” said Brian Stacy, Pierce County engineer.

The next step is for the county to narrow its options and conduct a more thorough bridge analysis.

Young said Tuesday that the county is least likely to pursue the $20 million rehabilitation option. Only the more expensive rehabilitation/retrofit option or a new bridge would make the structure strong enough to handle heavy loads and withstand an earthquake.

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467, @bgrimley

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