Littlerock Road bridge closure frustrates drivers, businesses

1,500 sign petition seeking reopening to passenger vehicles and pickup trucks

lpemberton@theolympian.comMarch 11, 2014 

Nearly 1,500 people have signed a petition asking Thurston County officials to reopen a two-lane bridge over Salmon Creek off Littlerock Road for local traffic.

But county officials say the bridge can’t accommodate heavy vehicles because inspections show significant cracks, a lack of reinforcing steel and missing footings. Officials have applied for emergency money to replace the bridge, but that might not happen until late this year or 2015 due to environmental concerns and other issues, according to a copy of the Federal Highway Bridge Program project application.

The removal of the existing bridge and replacement project is projected to cost $3.97 million, according to the application.

The petition effort is being organized by Chong and Yang Na, owners of the Villa Grove gasoline station and convenience store at the intersection of 93rd Avenue Southwest and Littlerock Road Southwest, south of Tumwater.

Chong Na said their business is losing thousands of dollars a day in grocery and gasoline sales because of the detour near the bridge. They’re hoping the petition, slated to be delivered Tuesday to Thurston County Public Works, will persuade officials to reopen the bridge.

“Something’s got to be done,” said Holly Crisp of Tumwater, a Villa Grove employee who was recently laid off and is helping circulate the petition.

The two-lane bridge, known as L4, was closed Jan. 27 after crews found scour under the center pier, according to road operations manager Lucy Mills. That’s when water washes away rock or footing around a bridge’s foundation, she said.

Temporary repairs were made, and it was reopened on Feb. 19 for passenger vehicles and pickup trucks without trailers. But county officials closed it a day later after noticing that heavy vehicles were crossing it, despite signs about the restrictions.

“It’s like they ruined it for the rest of us,” said resident Stacy Brady, who lives in south Thurston County and commutes to Olympia. “It’s been a real inconvenience for people in general.”

Meantime, copies of the bridge’s past inspections and documents related to the emergency closure obtained by The Olympian indicate the structure was a catastrophe waiting to happen before the temporary repairs.

On Jan. 23, Thurston County assistant design engineer and bridge inspector Shawn Brandt requested a survey of the bridge to determine possible settling movement, after a different employee reported a “dip” that had not previously been on the bridge, records indicate.

The next day, engineer Diane Sheesley wrote an email to Thurston County Public Works Director Donavan Willcutt and others stating that Brandt had looked at the bridge.

“Yesterday he noticed a crack (that had previously been there, but was very small and did not downgrade the bridge rating enough to make it eligible for any funding and shouldn’t have as it was very small) that had increased in size a fair amount,” Sheesley wrote. “Today he went back to check for scour, he found scour, but was unable to locate any piling, and it is not a spread footing, it appears this bridge may have been just built with the concrete being below the surface a small amount.”

On Jan. 28, inspectors gave the bridge a rating of 7, compared to 55.44 in 2012, the bridge’s last routine inspection. It received a 62.74 rating in 2009.

Bridges with ratings lower than 40 are eligible for federal replacement money, according to documents from the county.

“The foundation material below pier No. 2 has scoured significantly, resulting in a large void beneath the pier for nearly its entire length,” Brandt wrote in the Jan. 28 inspection report. “Without adequate supporting material, the bridge has settled and a large 1 to 1.5 inch wide vertical crack developed at the pier centerline. Inspection of the crack also revealed the lack of steel reinforcement within the pier.”

On Jan. 29, the county applied for replacement funding through the federal highway bridge program.

“The closure and detour routes have increased fire department and law enforcement response times, increased travel time for school bus routes and commuters,” Willcutt wrote in an application letter for the grant. “Littlerock Road Southwest is federally classified as a rural major collector and has an average daily traffic volume of 6,500. It is a primary route between southwest Thurston County and the urban centers of Tumwater, Olympia and Lacey.”

As of March 4, five people had submitted written complaints to the county about the closure, which is scheduled to continue until the new bridge is opened.

A few of those folks included their own ideas on ways the bridge could be reopened.

For example Littlerock road resident Geoffrey Quick asked whether the county could install low-clearance bars across the road on one side of the bridge to block larger vehicles.

“Unless the truck barrier was a fixed/hardened system (i.e., freeway overpass type of design), then a truck would likely be able to continue through the barrier with little resistance, thus defeating the very purpose of the structure,” county engineer Scott Lindblom wrote in a response. “It could also require ongoing maintenance and repair and in general, may create an additional safety risk.”

In a separate complaint, Evan Olsen asked whether law enforcement could monitor the bridge for compliance.

“The county simply does not have the resources to be sure trucks don’t use the bridge all day, every day,” Lindblom wrote in a response to Olsen. “So, to ensure the safety of the public, the decision was made to close the bridge until it could be replaced.”

Crisp has plenty of ideas to get the bridge reopened, too, so that business can pick up at the Villa Grove gasoline station and convenience store.

She would like to see the county install a temporary bridge, like the type that’s often brought in by the Army Corps of Engineers during washouts and other emergencies.

If that’s not possible, she thinks the county could install a video camera to catch heavy vehicles that are trying to cross the bridge.

She and Chong Na also think the bridge could be reopened during the daytime hours.

“Let’s get a flagger,” Crisp said.

The bridge’s detour — which adds four to five miles one way for most people’s trips (although Chong Na said some of her customers have said it’s almost 20 miles extra for their round-trip commutes) — isn’t just an inconvenience, it’s hurting several businesses in the area, she said.

Crisp said she’s hopeful the petition will persuade the county to reopen the bridge. She’s also sent letters about the closure to the state Department of Transportation, state legislators and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.

“If we can get it opened until July, at least we can prepare for (another closure),” Crisp said. “We can save. We can put away for taxes. … This is a huge hit.”

Lisa Pemberton: 360-754-5433 @Lisa_Pemberton

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