Pierce County Council committee OKs historic McMillin Bridge nomination

A Pierce County Council committee Monday approved a recommendation to place the 79-year-old McMillin Bridge on the county's register of...

A Pierce County Council committee Monday approved a recommendation to place the 79-year-old McMillin Bridge on the county’s register of historic places.

The concrete bridge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic places and owned by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), has a long history in Pierce County. Built in 1934, the bridge is part of State Route 162 that connects Orting to Sumner. WSDOT officials have said the bridge is functionally obsolete and a new bridge needs to be built. WSDOT plans to build a new bridge just east of the McMillin Bridge then tear down the historic bridge. It has set aside $500,000 for the demolition.

Historic preservationists throughout Washington State and beyond argue the bridge is historically significant because it was designed by Homer M. Hadley, whose work contributed to bridges spanning rivers, lakes and creeks throughout Washington State. Hadley pushed for the state to build a floating concrete bridge across Lake Washington. Today, the westbound span of the Interstate 90 floating bridge is officially named the Homer M. Hadley Memorial Bridge.

The McMillin Bridge’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places is only an honorary designation with little regulatory bearing other than what is known as “Section 106” of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. In the case of the McMillin Bridge, Section 106 requires that a federal agency consult with a range of stakeholders to determine if demolishing the bridge will have any adverse effects. Because the McMillin Bridge crosses a body of water, the Puyallup River, the lead federal agency in this case is the United States Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE). In the end, it’s the Corps that will get to decide whether to issue the permit allowing the new bridge to be built and the old bridge to come down. The ACOE is expected to make a decision later this year.

In February, Pierce County’s Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission approved a nomination prepared by the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation to place the bridge on the county’s register of historic places. The nomination was then forwarded to Pierce County Council’s Rules and Operations Committee. That committee made a do-pass recommendation Monday for the full Pierce County Council to approve a proposed ordinance to place the bridge on the county’s register of historic places.

During the meeting this week, Pierce County Public Works Director Brian Ziegler noted WSDOT has asked the county if it is interested in taking ownership of the bridge and perhaps making it part of the Foothills Trail. “That comes with some obligations as an owner,” Ziegler told the county council committee. “That comes with some costs. The county has responded to that [Department of Transportation] request that we are not in a position to accept ownership of the bridge because of those unknowns and because of those costs. The [Department of Transportation] has asked a second time if the bridge could be used as a parallel route for the Foothills Trail across the Puyallup River. We currently use the adjacent railroad bridge as the Puyallup crossing for the Foothills Trail. Discussions with the [Pierce County] Parks Department and with our executive have led us to the same conclusion that the county’s expertise in this kind of bridge and understanding of its obligations is not sufficient that we would be good owners or stewards of the bridge.”

County Councilmember Dan Roach asked why WSDOT doesn’t use the $500,000 it has set aside to demolish the bridge and, instead, build their new bridge and use the half-million dollars to maintain and preserve the McMillin Bridge. “Just the interest alone would be able to do that in perpetuity, it would seem,” said Councilmember Roach.

“We’ve had those conversations with [WSDOT],” Ziegler explained. “That isn’t [WSDOT’S] main mission, to maintain old structures that aren’t used anymore. That is not a preferred option for [WSDOT]. It would certainly work from our perspective. Their desire is to maintain the bridges they use and either remove or donate the bridges they don’t use.”

Yet, WSDOT owns and maintains Indian Timothy Memorial Bridge in Asotin County, Wash. The 90-year-old concrete bridge sits adjacent to U.S. Route 12 and was preserved after a new bridge was built.

Ziegler added that WSDOT has offered Pierce County the $500,000 set aside for demolition if the county took ownership of the bridge. The county could use that money to maintain and preserve the bridge after it took ownership. But Ziegler again pointed to the county’s lack of interest in owning and maintaining the bridge.

“Why not contract with us?” asked Councilmember Roach. “[The Department of Transportation] keep[s] the ownership, we’ll take the money and maintain the bridge.”

“We didn’t discuss that option,” said Ziegler.

A date has yet to be determined for Pierce County Council to vote on whether or not to place the McMillin Bridge on the county’s register of historic places.

Several people spoke during a public comment period at the meeting on Monday. Here are their comments:

Gordon F. “Buzz” Brant, Vice Chair, Pierce County Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission

Different members of the committee made two trips out to look at the bridge and do an assessment of what basically you came up with there. We feel that it is a very worthwhile thing to add to the national register. In fact, we probably, as a commission, will be bringing more buildings, whatever, that are on the national register because it’s been discovered that it’s very good to have a structure on the national register and on our register. This is kind of the start of that, to tell the truth. We are just here to encourage you to pass this ordinance.

Chris Moore, Field Director, Washington Trust for Historic Preservation

I appreciate the opportunity to speak in front of you this morning. [I’m here] really just to support the ordinance, to support the designation of the McMillin Bridge on the local Pierce County register. It’s been mentioned that this bridge has, since 1982, been acknowledged as part of the national register of historic places, a federal listing maintained by the National Park Service. We think now 30 years later it’s certainly warranted to be understood and recognized as a local landmark as well. You’ve already heard the reasons why. I won’t rehash the criteria and its significance. But it truly is a unique bridge, not just for the region but for the nation, as well, so it has outstanding significance from that standpoint.

I just want to quickly note that there are other processes right now that are in consideration for this bridge. I’m sure you all know that crossing is right now being looked at for a new bridge to go into that site. The only thing I want to mention about that is that process, what ultimately is decided by the Department of Transportation and other entities involved, is truly separate from this process to have it designated as a local landmark. We do — the supporters, myself, and the others you’ll hear from — do think it’s important to have that acknowledgement regardless of what the outcome of other processes may be. We certainly hope for the best as that moves forward, but I just wanted to make that delineation very clear.

Thank you very much.

Bob Krier, Bridge Engineer (Retired), Washington State Department of Transportation

Good morning. My name is Bob Krier and I am a retiree from the Washington State Department of Transportation. I spent 31 years in design, construction, maintenance, and preservation of bridges. I have spent hours and hours trying to promote the preservation of this bridge. It is a very unique structure. There isn’t another one that I’m aware of in the world that has the same features as this one. And then add to that the innovative pioneer engineer Homer Hadley, who designed or promoted the design of the bridge, that’s a very important engineering consideration. It’s a very important part of Pierce County history and it’s a very important engineering feature that should be preserved. I urge all of you to do your best to place this on the landmarks register.

Karen Haas, President, Heritage League of Pierce County

We are blessed here with just a truly rich heritage in our county. It might be younger than a lot of others, but an awful lot has happened within the last little bit of time. We just basically second the motion. I have none of the engineering background but I do have a passion for history and I thank you for considering placing this as one of the important bits of our heritage that we need to hang onto. Thank you.

Brian Ziegler, Director, Pierce County Public Works

I feel very privileged to be on the same podium with Mr. Krier, who is always a hero of mine in the Department of Transportation. As a bridge engineer, there are very few who exceed his abilities.

I’m not here to speak to whether the bridge should be preserved or not, But I would like to provide some background on conversations the county and the [Department of Transportation] have been having regarding the status of the bridge. I know that preservation activities tend to get accelerated when there’s the threat of loss, and I believe that’s what is happening here. The [Department of Transportation] is undergoing, as Chris [Moore] mentioned, a decision process on how to replace the bridge, and that decision process involves a lot of stakeholders and a lot of interests at the table. They have not concluded that decision-making process. As you know, bridges are complex issues. This one over the Puyallup involves the Corps of Engineers, as well. There are issues of flood relief. There are issues of habitat [and] shading of habitat. The need for a highway bridge that needs to be widened. Preservation of an old bridge. So there’s a lot of competing issues happening at this very location.

The [Department of Transportation], in the midst of that decision-making process, has approached the county and asked if the county would be interested in taking ownership of the bridge. That comes with some obligations as an owner. That comes with some costs. The county has responded to that [Department of Transportation] request that we are not in a position to accept ownership of the bridge because of those unknowns and because of those costs. The [Department of Transportation] has asked a second time if the bridge could be used as a parallel route for the Foothills Trail across the Puyallup River. We currently use the adjacent railroad bridge as the Puyallup crossing for the Foothills Trail. Discussion with the [Pierce County] Parks Department and with our executive have led us to the same conclusion that the county’s expertise in this kind of bridge and understanding of its obligations is not sufficient that we would be good owners or stewards of the bridge. That’s what the record has said going back to the [Department of Transportation] and their decision-making process.

I’m not here to speak as to whether it should be on the register or not. I’m just here to give you that background information.

 

Pierce County’s historic McMillin Bridge. (PHOTOS COURTESY HISTORIC AMERICAN ENGINEERING RECORD / NATIONAL PARK SERVICE)

To read the Tacoma Daily Index‘s complete and comprehensive coverage of historic McMillin Bridge, click on the following links:

For more information about Homer M. Hadley, the McMillin Bridge, and WSDOT’s project, click on the following links:

Todd Matthews is editor of the Tacoma Daily Index and recipient of an award for Outstanding Achievement in Media from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation for his work covering historic preservation in Tacoma and Pierce County. He has earned four awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including third-place honors for his feature article about the University of Washington’s Innocence Project; first-place honors for his feature article about Seattle’s bike messengers; third-place honors for his feature interview with Prison Legal News founder Paul Wright; and second-place honors for his feature article about whistle-blowers in Washington State. His work has also appeared in All About Jazz, City Arts Tacoma, Earshot Jazz, Homeland Security Today, Jazz Steps, Journal of the San Juans, Lynnwood-Mountlake Terrace Enterprise, Prison Legal News, Rain Taxi, Real Change, Seattle Business Monthly, Seattle magazine, Tablet, Washington CEO, Washington Law & Politics, and Washington Free Press. He is a graduate of the University of Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in communications. His journalism is collected online at wahmee.com.

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