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Wednesday, June 09, 2004 - Page updated at 11:32 A.M.

Park-and-ride projects on different paths

By Lynn Thompson
Times Snohomish County bureau

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The two transit projects are separated by only three miles of freeway, but the direct-access ramps being built from Interstate 5 to the Lynnwood Park & Ride and the Ash Way Park & Ride couldn't be on more different courses.

The Lynnwood project, designed to speed buses and car pools directly into the freeway's high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes, will open this fall, a year ahead of schedule and about $3 million under budget.

The Ash Way project, dogged by safety issues and a flawed bridge design, is a year behind schedule. Project engineers say they still are optimistic it can be built for the $18.4 million originally budgeted, but in March, the contractor, Tri-State Construction, asked for an additional $3.4 million to cover a redesign and associated delays.

Sound Transit, which is paying for both projects, and the state Department of Transportation (DOT), which is managing them, contend the Ash Way bridge can be redesigned and built for about $1.2 million — within the original budget — and will seek bids for a new contract in the fall.

Instead of opening in September, the project is now scheduled to be completed in fall 2005.

Project engineers say the two sites have presented dramatically different challenges. The problems associated with the Ash Way direct-access ramp, just north of 164th Street Southwest, they say, can be traced to design challenges, not poor planning.

"To the public, these look like the same project," DOT spokeswoman Jamie Holter said. "But Lynnwood was an idyllic site, while Ash Way is much tighter and harder to engineer."

When completed, the Ash Way direct-access ramp will carry buses from the park-and-ride lot, across a bridge over the southbound lanes of I-5 and down a ramp to the freeway's southbound HOV lane. The changes are supposed to save about 25 minutes on a round-trip commute.

The project ran into its first problem in January, when the DOT implemented a laser-activated warning system to divert tall trucks around scaffolding that was built for the concrete bridge.

But even with an elaborate system that included flashing lights, alarm bells and State Patrol enforcement, dozens of tall trucks each day failed to exit the freeway before reaching the construction site. The DOT dismantled the system a month later.
 
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A second problem arose with a traffic divider placed in the southbound lanes of I-5 at the construction site to create space for a temporary support pier for the scaffolding. DOT officials said cars kept striking the pylons.

Mike Cotten, the DOT's project director, said drivers apparently were confused by the close proximity of the traffic divider to the 164th Street Southwest exit and by the wide left turn the freeway makes there.

The failure of the tall-truck warnings led the DOT to propose building the bridge on jacks and lowering it into place, a plan it said would delay construction only by a couple of weeks.

But with the additional failure of the lane divider and the potential for cars to slam into the support pier, the DOT decided to reconsider the bridge design, Cotten said. The lane divider was removed in March.

Jim Edwards, the chief engineer for Sound Transit's regional Express service, called the $3.4 million that Tri-State was seeking "out of line" and said the DOT and Sound Transit had decided to open the bridge portion of the project to competitive bidding. Tri-State is continuing to build the ramps approaching the bridge.

"I think it was prudent and proper to delay the opening (of the Ash Way ramp) and seek competitive bids for the redesign," Edwards said.

Greg Cearley, a vice president of Tri-State, acknowledged that the request for more money was "a big number" but said getting the project back on schedule was "a big task" that included having crews work nights, weekends and holidays, as well as having the company redesign the bridge.

Cearley said he doesn't think the problems with the bridge design at Ash Way could have been foreseen.

"I do 17 or 18 DOT projects a year, and I've seen this exact scenario work at other locations in the state," he said.

The new design calls for the bridge to be built two feet higher than originally proposed and to be built with stronger scaffolding to eliminate the need for the center support pier.

Three miles away, the $28 million Lynnwood direct-access ramp project benefited from having more land to construct a longer approach ramp and a bridge that could be built with horizontal steel girders rather than scaffolding and cast concrete, the DOT's Holter said.

Still, Holter doesn't think the Ash Way project is snakebit.

"It's not cursed," she said. "Every problem we've encountered there is something we've encountered on other projects, but for all of them to come together is a strange witches' brew."

Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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