Shutdown of Route 167 might frustrate drivers but should leave fish tickled

A 2013 decision by a U.S. District Court judge will have a major impact this weekend on one of the South Sound’s main freeways.

It also might make life easier on the Chinook, coho and steelhead that spawn in a local stream.

Crews from Atkinson Construction will shut down state Route 167 southbound near the city of Pacific starting Friday at 11 p.m. so they can replace a culvert that carries Jovita Creek under the freeway. The site is roughly between Sumner and Auburn.

The replacement is one of hundreds statewide mandated under an injunction issued by Judge Ricardo Martinez in response to a lawsuit filed by 21 Northwest tribes.

The injunction requires the Washington Department of Transportation to rebuild poorly designed culverts, basically large pipes that carry water under roads, that block salmon and other fish from reaching spawning beds.

Southbound Route 167 at Pacific will remain closed until 5 a.m. Monday while crews finish their work.

The Washington Department of Transportation is urging drivers to detour around the work by taking Route 18 west to southbound Interstate 5.

There will be a detour at the construction site, using Ellingson Road, West Valley Highway South and 8th Street East, but Caitlin Morris, a DOT spokeswoman, said that route most likely would be “challenging.”

“It’s a good idea to leave early and plan ahead, especially if you’re headed to a special event,” Morris wrote in a DOT blog post about the project.

Atkinson workers will lay the last nearly 200 feet of concrete culvert and pave nearly a mile of southbound Route 167 during the closure, said Larry Smith, a project engineer for Atkinson.

Morris said shutting down the freeway for a weekend would save nearly a month of nightly lane closures.

“You can condense a lot of work down,” she said.

1,000 ‘fish barriers’

Nearly 1,000 so-called “fish barriers” statewide are subject to Martinez’s injunction, which he issued after tribes sued the state, contending poorly constructed culverts were infringing on treaty-protected fishing rights.

Nearly half of those are located within DOT’s Olympic region, which includes Pierce, Thurston, Kitsap, Mason, Jefferson, Grays Harbor and Clallam counties.

The faulty barriers include culverts that were constructed in such a way that fish find them difficult to navigate. Problems include culverts that are too high above stream level for fish to swim into or others in which the water runs too swiftly for fish to enter.

Over the last three years, DOT has corrected 23 fish barriers subject to the injunction. Five of those were within the Olympic region, said Claudia Bingham Baker, a DOT spokeswoman.

The department has another 20 corrections under construction this year, including 15 in the Olympic region, Bingham Baker said.

The total cost to replace all the faulty culverts and other barriers statewide is estimated at $2.4 billion.

“Under current law, $640 million has been allocated for fish passage through the 2029-31 biennium,” Bingham Baker said.

The injunction requires the department to fix enough of the faulty barriers to open up at least 90 percent of the potential upstream habitat. The deadline is March 2030.

The department believes it must correct 450-500 of the faulty barriers to reach that goal, Bingham Baker said.

“Other barriers will be corrected as part of transportation projects,” she said.

Bingham Baker gave a fish barrier connecting a tributary to Mindy Creek in the Belfair area as an example. That passage is being fixed as part of a project to improve Route 3.

A big job

The culvert being replaced this weekend originally consisted of two corrugated pipes, one 96 inches in diameter and the other 72 inches, said Smith, the Atkinson project engineer.

The water flow through those pipes is too low and too fast for fish to swim in, Morris wrote in her blog post.

“And the culvert’s opening is too high for fish to jump into as they progress upstream,” she wrote. 

Smith also said the current pipes have been smashed down over the years and are no longer considered to meet standards.

The pipes are being replaced with a single concrete trough that is 19-feet wide and more than eight feet high, said Sharif A. Shaklawun, the DOT project engineer overseeing the Atkinson contract.

When completed, the new culvert will stretch nearly 400 feet under the freeway.

On Wednesday, crews using bulldozers and excavators carved out a massive hole in the median between the northbound and southbound lanes in anticipation of this weekend’s work.

“During the job, workers will excavate enough dirt to fill more than 100 backyard swimming pools and will restore 920 cubic yards of streambed, the equivalent of almost 74,000 party-sized tubs of ice cream,” Morris wrote in her blog post.

By Monday, they hope to lay more than 20 nine-foot sections of culvert, top each with a matching concrete slab and then backfill and pave over the top, Smith said.

Each section of culvert and each topping slab weighs about 46,000 pounds, he added.

The culvert work is part of an $84 million project to add a HOT lane that will allow lone drivers to use the carpool lane for a fee on southbound Route 167. The project also will resurface much of the roadway through the Pacific/Algona area and add ramp meters at intersections there.

“Replacing the culvert is a big part of the project,” Shaklawun said.

Crews are expected to finish most construction on the overall project by December with the tolling equipment for the new HOT lane being installed early next year, Morris told The News Tribune this week.

Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644, @TNTAdam