Some bad weather earlier this month and some minor repairs found during the renovation have delayed the official opening of the Murray Morgan Bridge another month. It was set to be open before the end of 2012. The new opening date is Feb. 1, with a grand opening ceremony on Feb. 14 complete with fireworks and a car parade. The actual ceremony will happen two weeks after the bridge is open to traffic. The first day won’t have much fanfare with crews simply set to move the concrete safety barriers and construction signs to the side of the road and let cars drive to the tideflats. There are no plans to have a ceremonial “first car” across the bridge. “A lot of people have asked me that,” City of Tacoma engineer Tom Rutherford said. “I guess it will be whoever is there when we take the barriers down.” The $57.4 million restoration project has been underway since May 2007. “We still have a lot of work to do on the bridge,” Rutherford said, noting that the work includes finishing the seismic retrofit and the installation of the elevator. “It really is a tight quarters out there with all the staging of equipment and things. This way we will be able to work full bore without having to dodge people driving on the bridge.” About 50 people are working on the bridge site at any given time. Even after the span opens crews will continue working on the bridge to add additional seismic re-enforcements to bring the span up to current standards. The city started work on the bridge after it took ownership of the span from Washington State Department of Transportation, which had been pondering simply removing that link between downtown Tacoma and the waterfront. The agreement called for the state to pay the city $37 million to go toward repairing the aging span and support city efforts to gain state and federal grants to further cover the repair costs.
Initial estimates put the total repair cost of the bridge at about $62 million. That is less than half of the original $160 million it was expected to cost for a new bridge along the same route. Tacoma argued that the bridge should be saved not only as an iconic city landmark but as a vital roadway between downtown and the Tideflats as the city seeks ways to boost economic development and access to the Center for Urban Waters, existing businesses on the Tideflats, and the proposed developments on the east side of Thea Foss Waterway. The current funding for the bridge will get the span operational for vehicle traffic, but more work will need to be done in future phases, as money allows, to fully bring the span to current standards. In bridge engineering terms, the bridge was closed when it received a safety rating of two on a 100-point scale. Phase I work brought that rating up to about 80. Phase II would increase that rating to about 90. A new bridge is rated at 100. That phase 2 work will include more seismic upgrades, construction of a new bridge deck, new electrical systems and a fresh coat of black paint, the original color of the bridge. Newer estimates put the cost of that work at between $10 million and $15 million. The drop in projected costs for the work came after research done after the city first released its initial estimate. Since the additional work is not yet funded, the projects might be split into separate contracts to allow the work to be done as money is available. No time line is available. The first bridge at the location, a swing span over the waterway from South 11th Street, opened in 1894 and provided the only route for Tacomans to take between their homes in the city and the shipping operations on the Tideflats. The current span was designed by the Kansas City firm of Waddell and Harrington that had also designed Portland’s Hawthorne bridge and opened in 1915. It was upgraded in 1957, when it became a section of SR-509 between Tacoma and King County. The route was then shifted to the current SR-509 bridge at South 21st Street with the creation of that cable-stay bridge in 1997, which dramatically dropped the traffic along the span from South 11th Street. What followed was a decade of on-and-off discussions about whether to repair, replace or simply remove the bridge. It has been closed to vehicle traffic since 2007 after it failed a safety inspection. The span had gained the name Murray Morgan in 1998, to honor the Tacoma historian who had worked as a bridge tender along the span and even did some of his writing for “Skid Road” there. He died in 2000. At its peak, the bridge handled some 15,000 cars a day. The SR-509 shift dropped that usage to about 4,500 cars a day, a rate that will likely return once it reopens. Allowing vehicles over the bridge again will also save the city some $2 million a year in staffing changes of emergency responders.