Sodden ground and permitting delays have granted one of Tacoma's most curious landmarks a stay of execution until at least late this year.
The Ruston tunnel, originally scheduled to be closed and filled with lightly contaminated soils from the old Asarco copper smelter site, will be functioning for at least another six months, said the contractor handling the project.
The two-lane tunnel was built in the ’30s to carry Ruston Way traffic through the smelter site near Point Defiance. The tunnel is scheduled to be replaced by a new landscaped boulevard cutting through the billion-dollar mixed use development being built on the former smelter site.
Mike Cohen, developer for that new housing and commercial site called Point Ruston, said construction on the new arterial can’t resume until the ground on the site is dried enough to allow earth-moving machinery to do its work. Cohen’s construction company is doing the road and related storm and sanitary sewer work.
The tunnel was closed for several days late last year to allow construction crews to bury sewer lines beneath the existing roadway approaching the tunnel. The $15.5 million project has also been held up by the complexity of planning for construction on a site once contaminated by byproducts of the smelting process. The Asarco smelter processed high-arsenic ore into copper and other metals for nearly 90 years before shutting down in the mid-’80s.
The permitting process has been further slowed by the necessity of dealing with two cities, Ruston and Tacoma, on the utilities and roadway project, said Cohen. Not only did his company have to negotiate the details of the project with both cities, it had to facilitate agreements between the two on solutions to the technical problems the project posed, Cohen said.
“The complications have been mind-boggling,” said Cohen. “We’ve already spent $2 million for engineering and permitting on the project.”
The final roadway alignment is elevated from the Ruston Way grade, so engineers were concerned that the existing pipes under Ruston Way couldn’t withstand the pressure from the new sewer lines from Point Ruston as the storm water and sewage joined the existing pipe network.
Depending on the weather, Cohen said he expects the project will be moving forward at full pace by midsummer with the new street opening for traffic by year’s end.
“There may be some final landscaping or streetside amenities that will have to wait until next spring, but the road should be open by January,” he said.
Meanwhile, Cohen is still awaiting approval of federal housing loan guarantees to begin construction on a 104-unit apartment building on the Point Ruston site. Those, too, had been scheduled to break ground this spring.
“That paperwork is still chugging along. It’s just a slow trip through the bureaucracy,” Cohen said. He said he expects a summertime ground-breaking on that new building.
The $12 million structure will house studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments renting for $1.40 to $1.60 a square foot. The apartments will range from 500 to 950 square feet.
Work has halted on the first condominium structure in Point Ruston while Cohen awaits the renewal of housing market demand.
One project on the site that’s already got the go-ahead is the removal of the former Asarco docks. Those three docks were supported by some 2,200 pilings. Together, those docks, where deepwater freighters tied up to bring ore and take away copper from the smelter, total nearly 1,500 feet in length. The $2.5 million dock removal project contract has already been awarded.
HOTEL ON TAP
Meanwhile, a 175-room Silver Cloud hotel project is still scheduled to be built at Point Ruston, said Cohen. Several tenants have signed for commercial space in that hotel. Construction of the hotel will begin when the infrastructure work on the site is finished and the business and housing markets have shown signs of revival, he said.