Not your dad's paint project

WSDOT engineer Dane Marbut scales the main cable to the Gig Harbor tower of the new Narrows bridge to inspect repair work of the main and suspension cables.
WSDOT engineer Dane Marbut scales the main cable to the Gig Harbor tower of the new Narrows bridge to inspect repair work of the main and suspension cables. The Olympian

It's almost like a choreographed dance on a cable while balancing 510 feet over the sparkling waters of Puget Sound.

The men whose boots move slowly in synchronized steps are painters donning neon vests and hard hats. Their work, like their footing, must be precise as they fix hundreds of blemishes on the new Tacoma Narrows bridge.

Bubbles ranging in size from a marble to a water balloon have popped up beneath the mint green paint on a third of the bridge’s main cables, something officials noticed even before the bridge opened three years ago.

Moisture also has seeped into the suspender cables through holes no larger than a pinprick, forcing workers to reseal the top of the cables and strip paint from the bottom so the water can drain.

Necessity, not aesthetics, is driving the repairs.

“The paint is what protects the bridge,” said Dane Marbut, a transportation engineer and field inspector for the state Department of Transportation. “We built it, now we have to protect it.”

It’s a lengthy job that started in September but was halted by the weather. After picking back up in April, officials say the project should be complete by the end of August.

Officials said the bridge’s builders, Tacoma Narrows Constructors (a partnership between Kiewit Pacific Co. and Bechtel Infrastructure Corp.), are handling the work because the bridge paint is still under a warranty included in the span’s $729 million price tag.

“It’s all warranty work,” said Transportation Department spokesman Joe Irwin. “This doesn’t cost anything to the taxpayers.”

Tacoma Narrows Constructors declined to say how much the work is costing.

Workers estimate they will use at least 30 gallons of paint – aptly named Tacoma Narrows green – to touch up the cables.

Right now, the painters are finishing up the cable on the south side of the bridge and alternating jobs and concerns.

When popping and peeling away bubbles on the main cable, the men worry about slipping off their 201/2 inch-wide work surface and the soreness in their thighs caused by straddling the cable for days.

During the times they’re coating the bottom two feet of the suspender cables, the painters’ concern is focused on the cyclists who must share the 10-foot-wide pedestrian lane. The cyclists are so quiet and quick as they zip past that workers fear for their safety and that of their equipment.

“The easiest part is the painting,” said Steve Zevnick, superintendent for Purcell Painting and Coating, which is contracted to fix the bubbles.

Bubbles are not uncommon on suspension bridges, Transportation officials say, pointing to the Carquinez Bridge near Vallejo, Calif. That bridge, also built by Kiewit, had bubbles for the first few years but they dissipated over time.

“The number and size of (the bubbles) are definitely reducing” on the new Narrows bridge, Marbut said. “I truly believe this will be our last time up here fixing them.”

Affected spots on the bridge have been circled with black marker so painters can easily spot them and scrape them away.

It is painstaking, nerve-rattling work.

“It never escapes your mind. You’re basically holding on for your life,” said Zevnick, who pictures his wife and two teenage daughters while inching along on the cables. “You never forget that you have a family at home because you can make a mistake up there.”

The men labor in teams of two, each outfitted in boots, pants, vests, gloves, face covers, sunglasses and hard hats. They slip on harnesses at the start of their shift and occasionally line the insides of their pants with football pads to ease the discomfort of sitting on cables.

The painter faces upslope (slimmer chance of slipping). His job is to use a small metal tool to scrape off layers of paint up to 45 millimeters thick, often using one hand because his other arm is wrapped around the cable for a backup to the protective harness he wears.

His partner faces him and holds a mirror attached to a stick, better to help the painter see what he is working on.

They rarely look up from their work, except on an occasional break where they put meticulousness aside and enjoy the breathtaking view and thrill of being atop a local icon.

Then they return to work and hold on tight.

Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653 stacia.glenn@thenewstribune.com