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Clallam County’s bridges: aging, but serviceable
The Thursday collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River made headlines across the U.S.
Investigators are still working the case, trying to find out why the bridge failed.
At the same time, the event has brought added scrutiny to America’s bridges, including those in Clallam County.
State of the state
Chris Keegan, Olympic Region Operations Manager for the Washington State Department of Transportation, said the state has 56 bridges in Clallam County. Most are in good shape, he said, but there are exceptions. He discussed the old steel bridges that are still in use, particularly in the West End, saying, “The major concern is that they’re older.”
He said most bridges are built to last about 75 years. Many of the bridges in Clallam have passed that milestone.
“They were pretty much built for Model-Ts and lighter vehicles,” he said.
That doesn’t mean they’re going to collapse. It just means they don’t meet modern standards.
“The Hoh River bridge is 21 feet wide,” he noted, “basically two 10-foot lanes with no shoulders.”
A replacement bridge, he said, would be at least 36 feet wide. New bridges built in urban areas are at least 40 feet wide.
The only bridge of concern, he said, is the McDonnell Creek bridge, which is now being replaced as part of the widening of U.S. Highway 101 between Sequim and Port Angeles.
He said the McDonnell Creek bridge had problems from the beginning. “They are very shallow piles — only four feet in the ground.”
He noted that some years ago the creek was scouring around the base of the piles, so the department brought in rocks to halt the damage.
Only two other bridges currently require repairs. The Bogachiel Creek bridge has “deck problems,” Keegan said. “The top surface is flaking off.”
The Green Creek bridge on state Highway 112 has one piling that requires repair.
Keegan said both of those jobs will be accomplished soon.
About the county
Jim Jones, Clallam County administrator, said there’s good news regarding the county’s bridges. “The nice thing is we don’t have a single bridge non-redundant single failure point, meaning we don’t have any bridges that if one unit fails, the whole bridge fails,” Jones said.
Jones said every bridge undergoes routine inspections. None of the county’s bridges were constructed similarly to the Skagit River bridge.
Bob Martin, the county’s administrative director of public works, agrees the county’s bridges are in “fairly good shape.” He said it’s possible but unlikely a bridge could go down. “There are some truss designs that have fracture-critical members, so the same thing that happened to the Skagit River bridge could happen here.” But, he added, the bridge would have to “get damaged in just the right way.”
He said a bridge over the Elwha River was closed a few years ago “because it was in such bad shape.” It has since been replaced with a “quite nice one.”
Jones said if the county were to experience a bridge disaster, it likely wouldn’t result from a too-heavy load. Instead it likely would result from seismic activity.
“If a seismic event did happen, it could turn us into an island,” he said.
He noted most people don’t recognize the central importance of the Morse Creek Road bridge, which is the only way east from Port Angeles.
The City of Sequim owns and operates two bridges — the Pitship Pocket Estuary bridge, east of the intersection of Whitefeather Way and West Sequim Bay Road, and the Johnson Creek Trestle west of Whitefeather Way on the Olympic Discovery Trail.
Paul Haines, Sequim public works director, said they periodically have to inspect both bridges, but neither is a matter of great concern. The Pitship bridge was finished in 2010 and handles light traffic, while the trestle sees only pedestrian traffic.