Raft Island residents cheered and applauded late Sunday afternoon when the classic 1958 Pontiac Bonneville started its short drive down the American flag-lined bridge, ceremoniously welcoming in the new 757-foot span.
Although the Raft Island bridge officially opened to car traffic June 24 for the first time, that didn’t stop young children from pedaling their decked-out bikes behind the classic Pontiac — on loan from the LeMay car museum — to help celebrate the end of a nearly 20-year wait for a new bridge.
The bridge celebration festivities also included the firing of a cannon, a cookout and live music.
The journey to get the project completed didn’t come without its roadblocks, however. The Raft Island Improvement Association’s bridge committee had its loan application rejected 45 times before finally finding financing for the project, said Rich Swenson, an island resident and head of the RIIA.
“The few banks that did consider us for a long term loan would only do (it over) 10 to 15 years,” Swenson said.
That came with higher fees and an interest rate that reset every five years.
“The cost per lot would have gone up pretty substantially and most likely would have made this project difficult to sell to our members,” he said.
The group ended up seeking financing from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development sector, and was finally approved for the loan on the second attempt — thanks to a little help from former Rep. Norm Dicks and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Swenson said.
“We didn’t realize (the USDA) was out there (for financing),” he said.
Mario Villanueva, the director of the USDA Rural Development’s Washington State Office, was in attendance Sunday and even helped cut the ribbon before the Pontiac drove over the bridge.
“It’s (about) people coming together, working together and saying, ‘We’re not going to take no for an answer,’” Villanueva said during the ceremony. “This was about local solutions for local problems.”
About 700 residents live on the private, 160-acre island. Cars will alternate in one lane on the new bridge while crews add the finishing touches, including permanent asphalt and landscaping.
The old bridge will be demolished and removed over the next couple of weeks.