Thanks to the Skagit River Bridge collapse north of Seattle this spring, we have a renewed focus on bridge safety throughout the region. While maintenance and inspection takes place on a regularly scheduled basis, the Skagit River incident shined a spotlight on state- and countywide structures. Some drivers are rightfully concerned about the routes they travel.
Add Fox Island to that list.
The people with whom we spoke this week aren’t overly worried about a catastrophic crash of the Fox Island Bridge, and while we admire their trust, the numbers don’t lie. The span recently was downgraded to a sufficiency rating of 7.33 on a 100-point scale, a drop from a rating of 33 last year.
After they reviewed reports from an inspection last summer, Pierce County officials designated the Fox Island Bridge as “structurally deficient,” putting it at the top of the list of county-owned bridges to be replaced. The designation means the bridge’s condition or design reduces its ability to carry its intended load. It already has posted weight limits and has been labeled “functionally obsolete” because it’s only 22 feet wide.
Built in 1954, the Fox Island Bridge is the county’s longest span at 1,950 feet. It connects Fox Island to the Gig Harbor Peninsula, where a ferry once ran several times per day. If and when a replacement plan begins, a ferry might be the best form of round-trip travel.
But that might take a while. At a price tag suggested to be $50 million to $60 million in today’s currency, replacement isn’t likely to be a fast operation. While Kraig Shaner, the county’s bridge engineering supervisor, called the bridge “safe,” he also said it could be 20 years before it’s replaced.
To put that in perspective, tolls on the Narrows Bridge are set to expire in 2029 — 16 years from now — unless the state Legislature is able to extend the term to keep rates more reasonable for commuters.
Will we think differently about tolling as a means to pay for transportation projects in the future? Will we see other bridges replaced — for example, the historic structure that connects Gig Harbor and the Purdy spit — with a different method of funding?
State and federal grants likely would be sources. They may not be the only ones. And while the county has identified the bridge as one that needs to be replaced, no money has been earmarked to pay for such a replacement.
The Fox Island Community Recreation Association has been working on an emergency-preparedness plan and sees the bridge as a critical piece of infrastructure. John Braden, the president of the organization, also sees potential help in the form of the Fox Island Yacht Club and others who have docks. The biggest problem would be getting supplies, Braden said. And that’s going to be an issue whether the bridge eventually is closed intentionally, or if an event occurs that takes it out of play some other way.
Braden has been involved with FICRA discussions that have centered on a type of carpooling concept, which would have some residents keep vehicles on the Gig Harbor side of the bridge in case a ferry is the only form of transportation. Maybe they can take their cue from Herron Island residents, who cross the Case Inlet on a ferry to their homes west of the Key Peninsula.
The rating of the Fox Island Bridge rating is disconcerting, but community leaders are doing the right thing by bringing it to the public’s attention. It’s a starting point for a larger discussion about preparedness and potential isolation, even without the presence of a natural disaster.
Now that it’s been identified as a problem, step two will be to figure out when and how the bridge can be replaced. A 59-year-old deficient structure isn’t going to get any better with age.