Road to pier damaged during upgrades, now closed

Published on Thu, Mar 27, 2014 by Brandy Kiger Shreve

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A project to stabilize and improve the Blaine Harbor pier for public use has left access to it on shaky ground. 

The public pier, located at the end of Marine Drive, was closed to both pedestrian and motor vehicle traffic for nearly two 
months this winter so that the Port of Bellingham, which owns the structure, could make much-needed repairs and upgrades. 

The pier work included re-driving structural piles and replacing the support beams and wood decking. 

While the project itself was deemed a success, the road leading up to it was left worse for the wear. 

Potholes, which might be more accurately described as craters, have appeared along the entire strip of road, along with longitudinal cracks that disrupt the length of asphalt. 

Some of the potholes are quite deep – one accommodated a two-foot length of a tape measure – evidence that the subgrade has shifted under the asphalt. “I was aghast when I saw what had happened,” Blaine Public Works Director Ravyn Whitewolf said. “We didn’t anticipate that this level of damage could be done to the road.”

Whitewolf points to heavy machinery carrying loads of building materials back and forth along the narrow strip of road during the pier construction as a likely contributor to the road failing, as well as the vibrations from pile driving. “They were hauling lumber and metal on a big forklift, and I think it just couldn’t take that kind of commercial weight and concentrated use,” 

Whitewolf said. “But the real culprit is probably the bulkhead on the south side of the road.”

Whitewolf said she and her crews have been providing maintenance to the south side of the road for some time, but this is 
the worse that they have seen it. “This longitudinal cracking and distressing is 10 feet in from the shoulder,” Whitewolf said. “We’ve never had to provide maintenance there before.” The extensive damage has prompted Whitewolf to re-close the road to traffic until the city can work out how to fix the issues that threaten to deteriorate the road even further. “I made the decision to close the road due to public safety,” she said. “Any weight on the road will just keep extending the damage. We don’t have a way to simply patch this up and we sure don’t have anything budgeted to fix this right now.”

Whitewolf instructed public works crews to put the fences back up but leave a space so that pedestrians can pass through. The damage begins just after the last of the Blaine Harbor business sites, so no commerce will be impeded.

Whitewolf and Blaine city manager Dave Wilbrecht met with Port of Bellingham executive director Rob Fix and commissioner Jim Jorgensen on March 25 to discuss the options for making the pier accessible by car once again.

“This can’t be just a walking path,” Fix said. “We’ll partner with you to make the changes. I don’t think we’ll bear 100 percent of the cost, but we just put $400,000 into a dock that we’d like to be usable.”

But what that fix will be is still up for debate.

Whitewolf thinks grinding up the existing asphalt and then laying gravel overitt will be easiest for her crews to maintain, while Fix suggested that they just continue to fill in the potholes (all 21 of them) for a while.

Both agree that any solution they come up with will be temporary, and, as Wilbrecht so eloquently put it, “putting lipstick on a pig.” The question is, “What color is the lipstick going to be?” Fix said. “The real problem here is the failing sea wall. This road was built back in the 1940s and has seen more than its lifespan.”

The location of the road itself poses problems for creating a permanent solution, since the road borders a habitat bench (a protected area designed to provide a habitat for juvenile salmon and eelgrass to grow), and would require permitting from the department of ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

All of this is well out of reach of both the city and port’s pockets. 

“It’s going to cost millions to replace the road,” Whitewolf said. “It’s way more than we or the port have.”

The port has instructed Blaine Public Works to provide estimates of what it would cost to create either of the temporary fixes that were suggested, and it will have its engineers review those plans before making a decision. The goal is to get the road back open and provide as much access as possible. 

“The best solution will provide two-way traffic,” Wilbrecht said, “but short of that we can go to one way” to protect the crumbling south side of the bulkhead. They hope to have the temporary fix in place in time for the summer, when fishing and crabbing are underway and the pier receives heavier usage. 

“We can’t just ignore it,” Whitewolf said. 

Edited Thursday, March 27 2:16 p.m.: Corrected the inadvertent admission of Blaine Public Works Director Ravyn Whitewolf's first name and title.