N. Fork Lewis River Bridge prepped for repainting

Specialized bridge paint helps protect structure, fight against corrosion

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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photoTwo decades of weathering has left its mark on the North Fork Lewis Bridge. Crews will blast off old paint and apply several new coats in a $14.7 million project that isn’t scheduled to be finished until 2016.

(/The Columbian)

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WOODLAND — The North Fork Lewis River Bridge is about to get its first makeover in 23 years.

And while a fresh coat of paint (five coats, actually) will make the Interstate 5 span in Woodland look younger, the change will be more than cosmetic. Crews are preparing to apply specialized bridge paint that also protects the structure and prevents corrosion, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Drivers traveling over the bridge won’t see any direct impact on traffic at first. Workers will spend the coming weeks setting up rigging and staging equipment to reach the two spans that cross the Clark-Cowlitz county line. Among the first areas to be repainted will be the steel support structures below the bridge deck.

“Bridges by their very nature are in difficult-to-reach areas,” said project manager John Todd, of Ohio-based contractor Geronimo Painting Company.

The $14.7 million project won’t be a quick job. The project is scheduled to finish in 2016, but it could wrap up as early as 2015, Todd said. The seemingly high price tag accounts for a labor-intensive process, and highly specialized equipment and materials, he said.

Bringing in bridge paint, in other words, isn’t as simple as a trip to the hardware store. The color is “cascade green.” That’s the same color the bridge is now, and one of four standard colors WSDOT uses. (The other three are varying shades of gray).

Todd’s company is wrapping up similar work on the Lewis and Clark Bridge into Longview. Some of the equipment there will soon make the trip down I-5 to Woodland.

The two spans of the North Fork Lewis River Bridge were built in 1940 and 1968. The structure, which carries some 65,000 vehicles per day on average, was last repainted in 1990, according to WSDOT. But now it’s showing its age — the existing paint is cracked, rusted or gone entirely in places. Planners decided to take on the job starting this year largely because the coating is simply at the end of its life cycle, said WSDOT area engineer Chris Tams.

The repainting process starts by blasting away the existing paint, then applying the new coats along the way. Crews will tackle the bridge in sections to avoid leaving bare metal exposed for too long, Todd said.

Crews will get as much work done as they can this fall before closing up shop for the winter, Todd said. They’ll come back in earnest in the spring, which is when more direct traffic impact is likely to be seen.

While the work won’t always mean lane closures, drivers will see activity, Tams said. Repainting the bridge means wrapping at least part of it in tarps. The speed limit will eventually be reduced from 70 mph to 60 mph on the bridge, he said.

“It’s a change. It will definitely be a change,” Tams said. “There’s no way to not have people slow down when they come through here.”

The project comes as the amount of money available for bridge preservation work in Washington is expected to drop, WSDOT spokeswoman Abbi Russell said. The current two-year state budget includes $273 million for such work, Russell said. In 2015-17, the same fund is expected to be less than a third of that. Available state and federal funding for bridge preservation is projected to fall well short of what’s needed, she added.

New paint on the North Fork Lewis River Bridge should last at least 10 to 12 years, according to WSDOT. It could be longer than that before the structure gets its next fresh coat.

“Paving is something I get to do every other year or every year,” Tams said. “Painting a bridge is something that doesn’t come around very often.”