Special Reports

New bridge gets a bit greener

Under pressure from Gig Harbor residents, the state Department of Transportation has agreed to spend an additional $1.46 million for landscaping on the new Tacoma Narrows bridge project.

The money will mean more trees. But it also will mean more toll money.

Is it worth it?

State Rep. Pat Lantz (D-Gig Harbor), the prime mover behind the changes, said there’s no question.

“The cost was never an issue and should never have been an issue,” Lantz said. “It is a minuscule amount of money compared to the entire project.”

The money is coming from the $849 million project’s reserve for contingencies, the unspent portion of which will be returned to the state’s general fund when construction is complete.

At $3 per vehicle, the extra landscaping cost, plus interest, will take about six days’ worth of traffic to pay off.

“It makes a difference in something that’s an assault on our sensibilities and something that respects our community’s interest in environmental quality,” Lantz said.

The state’s project managers say they have no problem with the changes.

The original landscaping plan was strictly utilitarian, characterized by open grassland and driven not by aesthetics but by safety, cost and easy maintenance, said Jeff Carpenter, the project’s chief engineer.

After members of the community objected, Carpenter said, “We looked at it again and decided, this isn’t where we want to be.”

Essentially, the new plan puts trees and shrubs on roadside areas intended to be hydroseeded with grass, or as Carpenter put it, “your basic blow-and-go approach.”

The changes are taking place all along the Highway 16 corridor from the new and old bridges to the Gig Harbor weigh station. But most planting is concentrated near the new toll plaza, where the highway grew during construction from four lanes to 13.

The $1.46 million makeover is most obvious along the fenceline of the Performance Golf driving range, where landscaping crews have been tightly packing in a narrow strip of fast-growing cypress trees.

Big transportation department construction projects usually incorporate more public input on aesthetics, Carpenter said. But in this case, he said, the process was complicated by other factors.

First, because the new bridge is a “design-build” project, the design was not complete until construction was well under way.

“There was nothing to hold up and tell people, ‘This is what it’s going to look like,’” he said.

Also, most of the energy at public meetings was used up on tolls, leaving no time for aesthetic concerns, said transportation department project spokeswoman Claudia Cornish.

“They didn’t want tolls,” she said. “People never got to the point of saying, ‘If we do have the bridge, this is how we want it to look.’”

Lantz, once a harsh critic, said she is pleased with the transportation department’s willingness to listen and adapt.

“The state has done a very credible effort to meet our concerns,” she said. “It will never be the same, but there was a real recognition that something needed to be done to salvage quality of life that had been destroyed.”

FOUR EARLIER bridge construction changes

Extra landscaping near the new Tacoma Narrows bridge is just one example of the changes Gig Harbor residents have initiated since construction on the project began three years ago.

For instance, the residents:

 • Nixed a transportation department plan to clear-cut a large wooded parcel bordered by Highway 16, 24th Street West and 14th Avenue Northwest, forcing the state to put its project offices miles from the construction site.

 • Insisted on a fabric fence around a golf driving range left bare by tree cutting. The 400-foot-long, 32-foot-high screen cost $247,000.

 • Talked the state into a $460,000 redesign of a stormwater detention pond adjacent to westbound Highway 16 near the bridge. The pond has been contoured into a more natural shape and will be surrounded with native plants.

 • Lobbied successfully to change the flat-roofed design of the toll operations building to a pitched roof.

Rob Carson: 253-597-8693