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Safety a concern as bridge sections arrive

The new Tacoma Narrows Bridge isn’t open yet, but Washington State Department of Transportation officials are already preparing for potential traffic congestion — alongside and underneath the span, that is.

“My biggest concern is traffic (on the current bridge), people slowing down to get a look at construction and perhaps getting into accidents,” said Project Engineer Dennis Engel, explaining that the WSDOT did not consider closing the current bridge a viable option. “More than 80,000 people cross that bridge every day, so we will not be closing it.”

The activity drivers might find so intriguing will begin in about a week, Engel said, when crews will begin offloading the first 16 sections of the bridge that recently arrived from Korea.

“It will be the most impressive stage so far in the construction, and we are expecting a high level of interest,” said Lt. Cdr. Jason Tama of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Seattle Sector, explaining that his job will be to keep marine traffic safely away from several zones near the construction activities.

“It will require a very delicate orchestration of vessels to maneuver the sections into place,” he said, “which will be very interesting, but also very dangerous.”

Beginning June 19, and continuing until Nov. 15, Tama said the Coast Guard will be enforcing several “safety zones” for the duration of the deck installation phase, and that violations can incur a $32,000 fine.

Tama said the zones include a 500-foot, moving perimeter around the construction barge “Marmack 12” at all times, another 500-foot zone around the waters directly below the lifting beams that will be installing each large section of the bridge, along with a complete closure of the waters underneath the West, or Gig Harbor, span of both bridges.

Spokeswoman Erin Babbo said that particular area will be off limits because the ship carrying the sections will be docked there as crews carefully unload and set each 420-ton piece into place.

To make sure the weight is evenly distributed at all times along the new bridge, Babbo said crews have a detailed map outlining where each section of the bridge should be added. While this is happening, the ship will stay under the west side of the bridge and barges will carry each section to its destination on the span.

Keeping marine traffic out of the safety zones will be paramount when the sections are being moved and lifted, Tama said, because “the last thing we want are boaters underneath those 420-ton sections of steel, which pose an extreme hazard if they should fall.”

The deck sections are expected to be completely assembled early next year, and once the deck has been bolted and welded together, the surface will be coated with a membrane and then topped by two inches of asphalt.

Boaters concerned about safety zones and the progress of deck section work can get updates from the Coast Guard’s Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) via Marine VHF-FM Channel 14, or by calling (206) 217-6151.

Updates on all areas of bridge construction can be obtained online at www.tacomanarrowsbridge.com

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