Murray Morgan Bridge closure expensive decision

By Todd Matthews, Editor

A decision made last week by the Washington State Department of Transportation to close the Murray Morgan Bridge has proved to be an expensive move, according to information shared yesterday by City staff.

At issue is the cost of providing emergency services to Tacoma’s tide flats and port industrial area as a result of the bridge closure. The 94-year-old, 1,748-foot-long bridge spans Thea Foss Waterway, and was a quick link between downtown and the tide flats via the 11th Street corridor.

On Oct. 23, Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond announced the bridge would be closed to vehicular traffic due to safety concerns that arose after weeks of intense inspection by WSDOT engineers.

During City Council’s study session yesterday, staff announced an additional fire engine has been placed in service at Station 2, located at 2701 Tacoma Ave. So., at the cost of $125,000 per month. The engine will provide reasonable coverage to the tide flats, and timely back-up access to downtown and Northeast Tacoma, according to a brief prepared by City Manager Eric Anderson.

Similarly, the Tacoma Police Department will increase the level of police coverage in the Northeast Tacoma and tide flats area by placing providing overtime to six officers to patrol the area in shifts over the next 15 months. The cost is approximately $742,000.

According to police chief Don Ramsdell, response time from downtown Tacoma to the tide flats has increased from 2.03 miles and five minutes, to 5.22 miles and 12 minutes since the bridge closed. Police officers and other emergency personnel must now travel State Route 509 to reach the area. Ramsdell said officers west of the bridge typically provided back-up service to officers stationed in Northeast Tacoma. “In the event we have an event on the tide flats, and our other units are not available, we want to make sure we have as rapid response as we can,” said Ramsdell. “With the closure of the Murray Morgan Bridge, that ability to back up is gone.”

Additionally, the city is looking at a list of public works projects and traffic revisions that will assist emergency service personnel and traffic flow for drivers. Items include:

— confirm which traffic signals along response routes currently have Opticom devices that detect an approaching emergency vehicle, and identify which signals should be outfitted with the system;

— review the possibility of adding new traffic cameras in key locations along SR 509 to assist firefighters in moving through the area;

— a new traffic signal at the SR 509 off-ramp to Portland Avenue;

— permanent signage for bridge closure and new way-finding signs to assist motorists with detour routes

The city has also hired a consultant to provide an updated engineering analysis for rehabilitating the bridge so it can carry two lanes of traffic with no load restrictions. A report is due in December.

“We get a sense of what the impact is of shutting down the bridge,” said Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma.

Still, how the city or the state will pay for these items is unknown.

City Manager Anderson said he met with WSDOT representatives recently, and stressed “these are things we believe are necessary because the bridge is no longer there.”

The state presently has $25 million available for the rehabilitation or replacement of the bridge. According to an estimate in 2004, it would cost more than $70 million to replace the bridge. Anderson said he did not want to see money to pay for the necessary remediation to come from the $25 million pool.

WSDOT’s decision last week infuriated the mayor and several city councilmembers who charge the state has neglected the bridge over the years, which ultimately led to its closure. They pointed to an agreement between the City of Tacoma and WSDOT that holds the state accountable for maintaining the bridge. According to the agreement, dated March 23, 1995, the “state shall retain ownership and maintenance of the existing Thea Foss Waterway Bridge until the state completes the rehabilitation of the bridge. Upon the completion of the rehabilitation, the city shall accept said [bridge].”

A supplement to the agreement dated Jan. 26, 1998, states, “The state shall retain ownership and maintenance of the existing Murray Morgan Bridge . . . until the state replaces the existing bridge with a new bridge. The new bridge will be either a replica of the existing bridge or of a alternative design developed through a public process including consultation with the Tacoma City Council. Upon completion of the replacement of the existing bridge, the city shall accept said [bridge].”

Mayor Baarsma said he spoke recently with Governor Christine Gregoire about his concerns. “My sense is there is no question this is very much on her radar screen.”