TACOMA — Tacoma has closed its 96-year-old Fishing Wars Memorial Bridge, which carries 15,000 vehicles per day over the Puyallup River, after a federal audit raised safety questions about the structure’s steel beams.
The crossing closed Friday, and city staff haven’t predicted when it will reopen.
The Federal Highway Administration recommended closing the bridge to all vehicles immediately, the city said in a news release. The bridge is closed to bicycle and pedestrian traffic as well, the city said. A detour route takes travelers onto Lincoln Avenue to cross the Puyallup River.
The bridge opened in 1927 as a mainline segment of U.S. Highway 99, whose traffic was largely absorbed by I-5 in the 1960s. The modern name “Fishing Wars” memorializes the confrontations there in 1970 between Puyallup Tribe members who conducted “fish-ins” to assert their treaty rights, and law enforcement.
The structural questions involve horizontal steel beams, below the road deck, which are under tension. The bridge is “fracture critical,” meaning that a break in one major beam can make an entire span buckle or fall. Back in 2013, part of the I-5 Skagit River Bridge fell when an over height truckload pulled a key truss beam out of alignment, and in 2021, a truck hit on Tukwila’s Allentown Bridge led to emergency repairs, and a permanent reduction to one lane only.
The audit, in June 2023, said certain “panel points” where beams converge weren’t visible during a city inspection due to debris, said city spokesperson Maria Lee. The highway admnistration “does not consider the 2019 rating complete because of the unknown condition of some of the bridge’s structural elements,” a city announcement said.
Lee estimated the city would need to spend $6 million to $7 million to clean, inspect and reopen the bridge.
Old truss bridges pose a challenge around their gusset plates, where multiple beams join and are riveted — requiring special scrutiny to prevent loosening and corrosion in tight spaces.
The bridge’s structural evaluation is classified as “needs replacement” in the National Bridge Inventory. Tacoma staff say they may need to update its load rating.
Tacoma has proposed a $280 million replacement bridge over the Puyallup River, between Tacoma and Fife. An adjacent western section over train tracks was rebuilt in 2019 with a concrete-girder bridge.