Aberdeen buoyed by 520 bridge project
In Aberdeen, which fell on hard times after the collapse of the local timber industry, a $367 million state contract to build nearly three dozen huge pontoons for the 520 bridge replacement is invigorating the community.
Seattle Times staff reporter
What the work entailsNearly three dozen massive pontoons that several years from now will be used to float a new 520 bridge across Lake Washington are being built in Aberdeen, invigorating the town's economy and physically changing its landscape. Random facts about the pontoons and the project:
The pontoons: The project calls for 33, with the 21 largest weighing 11,000 tons apiece — a weight equal to 23 Boeing 747s.
The cost: The $367 million project is part of a $4.65 billion undertaking to replace the bridge.
The jobs: Contractor Kiewit-General plans to hire 300 workers, in a county with an unemployment rate of 13 percent, second highest in the state.
The worksite: Because Aberdeen receives an average of 84 inches of rain a year, more than double what falls in Seattle, crews had to build a huge network of wells, pumps and pipes to drain the 55-acre site before building a casting basin where, starting around the first of the year, the pontoons will be built.
The casting basin: Crews excavated 280,000 yards of soil, drove nearly 900 piles into the ground and poured about 16,000 cubic yards of concrete to form the base and walls. About 2,000 tons of rebar was used to build the floor.
The schedule: The first set of pontoons is scheduled to be completed in April, the second in September, with a projected completion date of June 2014.
Source: Washington State Department of Transportation
ABERDEEN — When the state Department of Transportation staged a celebration in February to announce that Aberdeen had been chosen as the site to build 33 massive pontoons for a new Highway 520 bridge, the wind was whipping and rain was pouring.
Dignitaries huddled under umbrellas.
But that didn't stop the high-school marching band from joining in the festivities, cheers and clapping from the townspeople, some 200 strong. Signs sprouted around town, "Welcome WSDOT."
"They really embraced us," said David Dye, the department's deputy secretary. "It was really great to be welcomed."
In a county that has limped along with a 13 percent unemployment rate, one of the highest in the state, the $367 million contract to build the pontoons — some as long as a football field and weighing 11,000 tons each — is pumping new life into a once-thriving timber town that fell on hard times and stayed that way for years.
The pontoon project will produce 300 union-wage jobs over several years. While it's not the only burst of recent good news for Aberdeen, it's clearly the most visible.
On a 55-acre site that once served as a log yard near downtown, crews are carving a giant "casting basin" three stories deep and nearly 1,000 feet long — big enough to hold the aircraft carrier Nimitz.
The hole has displaced 28,000 dump trucks of dirt, creating a basin long enough to build four giant pontoons at one time.
Crews this week are installing a giant gate 110 feet long and 30 feet high, through which the pontoons will pass on their way to Grays Harbor, where they will be anchored until needed for the new 520 bridge across Lake Washington.
The project has meant nothing but good news to Aberdeen.
"The restaurants are ecstatic to have them here," Mayor Bill Simpson said. "People always knock down Grays Harbor County, but I see it as a booming area, doing better and better all the time."
"It's bringing a lot of smiling faces," said Dave TerBush, who works for Home Depot. "It's all positive for the harbor. We've been discovered."
Added Deanna Russell, owner of Teri's Steakhouse, which opened about a year ago downtown: "It has done nothing but boost the economy, a real plus to the community."
Tim Gibbs, executive director of the Grays Harbor Economic Development Council, said the county is in a transition from one based on natural resources to a new one, evidenced by a booming port. "This $367 million project is providing much-needed stimulus for the county," he said. "The community wants to get back to work."
Besides the pontoon project, TerBush said, the port is filled with Chrysler cars being sent to China, new agricultural and biodiesel plants have opened, and there's even a new distillery in town.
"If you would have told me five years ago we'd be exporting cars to China out of Grays Harbor, I would have said you're crazy," said state Rep. Dean Takko, D-Longview. "It's huge. The biodiesel plant is running at 100 percent capacity."
That the project is being built on an old log yard is ironic, considering how the logging industry has suffered in Grays Harbor County.
Citing weak timber sales, Weyerhaeuser announced in 2009 that it would permanently close its Aberdeen log-export facility, which had operated since the 1970s. Fifty-four people lost their jobs.
And 230 workers were put out of work in May after the shutdown of Grays Harbor Paper in nearby Hoquiam, a closure blamed on the high price of wood pulp needed to make paper.
Even as those gloomy developments unfolded, Aberdeen's port was seeing some encouraging signs.
A Seattle company invested $40 million in the new biodiesel plant in 2007, and Cosmo Specialty Fibers, which produces pulp, was restarted last year.
The Highway 520 bridge project will produce 33 pontoons, the longest measuring 360 feet — the length of a football field — 75 feet wide and 29 feet high.
Crews also will build a pair of 240-foot cross pontoons and 10 stability pontoons, each 98 feet long. Other smaller pontoons will be built in Tacoma.
Kiewit-General, the contractor, plans to build six pontoons at a time — four longer ones and two shorter ones — by placing them end to end in the casting basin. Each pontoon cycle is expected to take several months, with the first set to be floated out of the casting basin and into the Chehalis River in April.
To move the pontoons into the river, crews will open gates to flood the basin temporarily and then pull the pontoons out with tugs. The pontoons then will be towed to Grays Harbor, where they will be anchored until they are needed for the 520 project (the anchors alone weigh 77 tons, equivalent to 10 African elephants, according to DOT).
The pontoons then will be towed to Seattle, where they will be used to float the new bridge.
The existing, four-lane bridge, built in 1963, is cracked and worn, and officials warn that an earthquake or severe windstorm could wreck it.
DOT remains at least $2 billion short of funding the entire $4.65 billion project. Tolls, expected to begin by the end of the year, will fill some of that funding gap.
A boon for county
The pontoon project is projected to pump millions of dollars into Grays Harbor County before it's completed in June 2014.
Already, workers are renting hotel rooms and buying houses, eating at restaurants and shopping at such places as Home Depot and Safeway. Retail sales are up 25 percent from a year ago in Grays Harbor, said LeRoy Tipton, president of the Grays Harbor Chamber of Commerce.
"Obviously, that's driven by the building that's going on," he said. "It's not just the pontoons, but thousands of autos are being exported, a ton of feed is being exported, a biodiesel plant is up and running full force. On top of that, we have the pontoon project."
Phil Wallace, pontoon project director with Kiewit-General, said the company has pumped $2 million into the Grays Harbor economy, buying asphalt and supplies and with its workers renting hotel rooms and frequenting restaurants.
Kiewit has hired 200 people for the job — about 40 percent from Grays Harbor County — and will have 300 workers at the project's peak.
Paul Harris, with the Laborers Union Local 252 in Grays Harbor County, said Kiewit has made good on a promise to hire locally — a plus for workers.
"They can work close to home, and they're loving it," Harris said. "Kiewit made a commitment to work hard and put local people to work, and they're doing a good job."
Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054
Information in this article, originally published November 1, 2011, was corrected November 2, 2011. A previous version of this story said the bridge pontoons under construction in Aberdeen weigh 11 tons each. Each pontoon actually weighs 11,000 tons.
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