The grid is unlocked
By Kate Reardon
EVERETT -- It's open!
Three weeks of ugly evening gridlock in downtown Everett is expected to ease up today with the early opening of the Highway 529 northbound bridge to Marysville late Thursday. And it's just in time for the long Labor Day weekend.
A $91,000 incentive bonus to open the bridge a week early fueled Mowat Construction to speed up work.
"It's never easy to impact people's lives with construction closures," said Thomas Gaetz, Mowat's vice president.
Kevin Parrish, senior project manager with Mowat, said obtaining additional equipment was what allowed the crews to paint the bridge quicker. Some of the work was also modified so it could be opened sooner.
"The company chose more expensive work practices to reduce the impact to the traveling public," Parrish said. "The state was trying to show they are a good provider of services to the community."
Commuters stuck in traffic Thursday were delighted.
"Wow! That's nice!" a surprised Lisa Bumgarner said when she learned of the bridge's planned opening. "That's a relief! This has been really awful."
Bumgarner, who lives in Stanwood, said her recent commutes have taken two hours from work in Everett.
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Kim Clark of Marysville said he "tries not to" get caught in the mess each day.
"I think it's great if (the bridge opening) relieves this," he said as he sat in a stalled line of traffic on Everett Avenue heading for the freeway. "I just can't believe closing the bridge creates all this."
There were some commuters who weren't so happy.
One radio station reported Thursday that the bridge would open at 5:30 p.m. instead of the scheduled 7 p.m. opening, Parrish said, adding that workers had to wave them back to the detour route.
"It was our worst nightmare," Parrish said.
The northbound bridge across Steamboat Slough closed Aug. 13 for the first phase of an $8 million project that includes mechanical upgrades, removal of lead paint and cleaning and strengthening the bridge to better withstand earthquakes. It was slated to open Sept. 7.
Because commuters were sent into a state of shock over the traffic chaos that led to hours-long delays, the state Department of Transportation is looking for other ways to handle these types of situations, said Victoria Tobin, DOT spokeswoman.
Not only did the traffic clog infuriate motorists, it also inconvenienced neighborhood residents who were forced to re-arrange daily schedules to avoid traffic jams just to pull into their driveways or find places to park.
To encourage early opening this time around, the transportation department doubled the contractor's financial incentive for the first phase of the project.
"We've been trying to ease the situation and mitigate the problem we came across," said Nabil Hamadeh, project engineer with DOT. "The best thing was we offered the contractor an incentive to accelerate."
Mowat Construction of Woodinville could get even more financial bonuses if it meets certain criteria at the end of the entire project, Hamadeh said.
Contractors are given a set number of days to complete a project. The department determines how long a project should take based on past experience and other projects, Hamadeh said.
The bridge project is still on schedule despite an earlier setback when one subcontractor working with Mowat defaulted and was not about to deliver mechanical components, Hamadeh said. Mowat hired Everett Engineering to replace the defaulted subcontractor.
Transportation Department Secretary Doug MacDonald said he heard first-hand from hundreds of drivers about their frustrations.
MacDonald said his department also kept a pulse on the community by reading The Herald and watching what people wrote on the newspapers' online forum.
After the first few days of traffic woes, a transportation department spokesman apologized to the community saying the department "blew it" and "screwed up" in creating the sudden traffic crisis by not providing enough alternative routes or information to the public.
Many motorists ended up exploring different routes on their own, easing traffic congestion a bit in following days.
Soon after, the department increased contractor incentives and invested more than $160,000 to ease traffic impacts by providing tow truck services in case of accidents and paid bus fares for riders to Marysville.
They also had State Patrol troopers direct traffic and added more signs alerting commuters to the closure.
The mayors of Everett and Marysville said they are happy about the early opening.
"We know a lot of our residents have been caught in the traffic backups, and it will be good for them to be able to get home in a reasonable commute time," Marysville Mayor Dave Weiser said.
Everett Mayor Ed Hansen said opening the bridge before the long weekend will help return the city's streets back to normal sooner.
However, there are still more impacts to come. More work will be done in the coming week during two one-hour closures of the northbound bridge. And early next year, the southbound bridge will close at which time the northbound bridge will be open to two-way traffic.
You can call Herald Writer Kate Reardon at 425-339-3455
or send e-mail to email@example.com.
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