The Washington State Department of Transportation maintains 17 moveable bridges across the state.
Of those, five are in Aberdeen and Hoquiam. Ranging in ages from a few decades to right on a century, no two are alike, and all of them require a vigilant eye to keep maintained.
The Daily World sat down with some of the folks who maintain those vital crossings across the Hoquiam, the Wishkah and the Chehalis.
“Bridges are a monument to progress,” says Dave Reibel, who supervises the bridge inspection teams for the Central Grays Harbor bridges, paraphrasing Joseph Strauss, who designed the Wishkah Street Bridge in Aberdeen, and would go on to help design the Golden Gate Bridge.
“Our job is very interesting because we get different situations,” Reibel said.
The Wishkah Street Bridge, built in 1924, was the first of the movable bridges in the area. Next came the Simpson Avenue Bridge in Hoquiam, built in 1928, the Heron Street Bridge, built in 1948, the Chehalis River Bridge, built in 1950, and the Riverside Avenue Bridge, built in 1970.
“The amount of traffic has increased over the years,” Reibel said. “There’s more people and there’s more traffic than there was back in the day.”
The bridges across the Wishkah River see about 16,000 vehicles cross in each direction every day, said April Leigh, communications consultant for WSDOT. Those across the Hoquiam see about 9,500 in each direction. Seasonal variations are also present — clam tides and summer will see heavier traffic, often with vehicles far heavier than originally envisioned decades and decades ago.
“The log truck traffic and general traffic of commerce is pretty hard on the bridge,” Reibel said. “They did not have these large trucks.”
Upgrades over the years, regular inspections, seismic refits and other work keeps the bridges up to date despite the worst heat, cold, ice, water, salt corrosion, bad drivers and the wear and tear of simple daily operations, Reibel said. Just on Friday, a motorist drove through a pedestrian guardrail on the Chehalis River Bridge, fortunately avoiding serious injury or death. .
“Maintenance is working as quickly as they can to repair the bridge,” Leigh said.
Heat expansion can also play a role, with a bridge that, once opened, might not be able to shut again if it’s been heated by the summer sun, Reibel said. Maintenance, cleaning cycles and keeping a close eye on components helps ensure their safe, regular use.
“There’s a huge variety of inspections on different timeframes,” Reibel said. “We take a very close look at everything weekly.”
The Wishkah Street, a bascule bridge, will hit a century of continuous use next year, Reibel said. Keeping these bridges running requires the bridge technicians to be proficient in a variety of disciplines, including electrical and mechanical work, to keep them working.
“Each bridge is its own animal,” Reibel said. “There’s a huge variety of maintenance on these bridges.”
Those varying ages and types — all five bridges in the area by WSDOT have different modes of operation — mean that getting parts for bridges, which were unique constructions even at the time of their building, can be impossible without machining their own parts, Leigh said.
“Try sourcing a radiator for a 95-year-old Chevy. See how far you get,” Leigh said. “They’re not only older, they were unique for their time.”
Such issues can be difficult to resolve, such as when a limit switch malfunction, an unusual issue, disabled the Simpson Avenue Bridge in March.
Bridges see varying numbers of lifts each month, Leigh said. The bridges, which are required by federal law to open for maritime traffic on an hour’s notice, are regularly opened to make sure they’re functional, as well as for boats — the Wishkah River bridges are not commonly required to open, for example, but the Hoquiam River has a steadier flow of traffic.
“The two bridges on the Hoquiam get the most use,” Leigh said. “That’s our busiest waterway.”
Contact Senior Reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or email@example.com.