Seattle appeal could delay pontoon project

An appeal filed by a Seattle-area group over the redesigned 520 Bridge across Lake Washington could end up shutting down production of huge concrete pontoons here in Aberdeen, impacting hundreds of jobs. Legislators are scrambling in Olympia — with public hearings planned today — to figure out possible legislation to keep the bridge project going and pontoon construction under way as the appeal process moves forward.

“Our biggest concern is the appeal could drag on and delay the production of pontoons up to a year,” Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said this morning.

Hammond said she’s optimistic the state Legislature will get involved and approve a new law creating a narrow exemption to the state Shoreline Management Act allowing construction of bridge components to continue while the appeal process moves forward.

The Coalition for a Sustainable 520 Bridge filed an appeal of the shoreline permits on Feb. 8 before the state Shoreline Hearings Board. The coalition has objected to the bridge project on a number of levels — among them the impact on historic neighborhoods near the Arboretum on the west side of Lake Washington, the appearance of the bridge (saying it is unnecessarily imposing), the cost and whether it will be effective in solving traffic issues.

Filing the appeal puts all aspects of the 520 Bridge replacement on pause. But Hammond is pressing for new legislation that would allow construction for just the 520 Bridge project to continue.

“Then, when the Shoreline Hearings Board makes their decision, we would implement the judgement and then we would pay the price if there’s been any changes,” Hammond said. “… We want to make sure the environment community doesn’t think we’re trying to change business from usual, but we don’t want to put this many people out of work. “

Aberdeen Mayor Bill Simpson broke the news before the Aberdeen City Council Wednesday night.

“I will be up tonight writing letters to our coastal caucus (legislators) and anyone else I can think of,” Simpson said, adding, “We cannot afford to lose any more jobs.”

Without new legislation, Hammond said the appeal process could take up to a year to resolve. During that time, the state Department of Transportation will have to decide what to do about the pontoon construction project, which is already at its full workforce and is in the midst of making pontoons. Permits for the construction project have been acquired, but Hammond noted that what happens in Aberdeen is intricately linked with what goes on in Seattle.

“The problem is this project is so intricately linked, even in Aberdeen, with Lake Washington,” Hammond said.

The construction project, located at the mouth of the Chehalis River near Port property may be asked to slow down pontoon production, she said. That could result in some layoffs. Another option would be to just shut down production altogether and come back after the appeal process, she said. That could lay off most of the workers there.

The plan had been to store the pontoons in a moorage site in waters not far from Ocosta. The first pontoons are slated to be completed in April and were expected to be shipped out shortly thereafter. But the moorage site only has limited space and cannot accommodate all of the pontoons, Hammond said. The goal had been to tow pontoons up the coast and over to Lake Washington, starting later this summer.

Hammond said the state could try to figure out more moorage places to put pontoons in the Harbor as the appeals process moves forward — but that would take time and more environmental permits. And even that effort would force production to slow down in Aberdeen.

As of last month, the pontoon construction project was employing more than 350 workers. The general contractor says roughly half of those are from the Grays Harbor area, although it seems clear that some of those are here just temporarily to work on the pontoons. They are building 21 giant longitudinal pontoons, two even taller cross pontoons and 10 smaller stability pontoons. The goal had been to complete the pontoons by sometime in 2014.

General contractor Kiewit-General is being paid $378 million to build the casting basin and pontoons, that’s an increase of about $11 million from the original contract after a number of change orders. How any slowdowns could impact the contract isn’t yet clear.

“Time is money and when we have a contract with a contractor and if we’re delaying their production rate we then face a stiff claim for their time,” Hammond said.

Hammond said not only could production be delayed in Aberdeen, but also on similar pontoons being built in Tacoma and on anchors being built at Kenmore.

“These are real jobs at a time when the construction industry is the hardest hit in the recession,” Hammond said. “This is a very good project creating jobs now that will build a strong transportation infrastructure in the future.”

Meantime, state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island; and state Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, introduced legislation that would allow the 520 Bridge project to continue construction, while the appeals process is heard by the state Shorelines Hearings Board.

The legislation will be heard in the Senate Transportation Committee today at 3:30 p.m. and in the House Transportation Committee Friday at 1:30 p.m.

“This appeal throws a wrench in it and I hope the Legislature will approve this bill as we sort this out,” Hammond said. “I’ve been in contact with the governor and we are taking this very seriously.”

State Rep. Dean Takko, D-Longview, who sits on the House Transportation Committee, said Wednesday night he plans to quiz the state and other parties on the 520 Bridge’s impact on the pontoon construction project.

“If this legislation needs to pass to allow the pontoons to continue being built, then that is what we’re going to have to do,” Takko said. “I don’t know the local politics up in Seattle and don’t know all the reconfiguration plans and personally I don’t care. I want those pontoons built and people to have jobs in Aberdeen.”

Takko said he had gotten word earlier Wednesday that the pontoon construction project may have to be mothballed and he said he couldn’t believe it.

“We need more information,” Takko said. “This isn’t right.”

The legislation is SB 6599 and HB 2787.