Drivers have seen delays at the Deception Pass Bridge this summer, and it’s not just from the usual tourist traffic around the iconic structure.
Work to repaint and repair the 85-year-old bridge has halted traffic at times and will continue another year, as the project has faced delays.
The $22-million project has been set back by a year because of the amount of old paint that accumulated over the years.
The project was originally planned to be completed in the fall of this year, but has since been pushed back to October 2021, according to project manager Michel Angelicchio from Eagle Industrial Painting.
The painting company is the contractor tasked with sandblasting and repainting the two bridges that span Deception Pass.
The removal of old paint on Canoe Pass Bridge was completed and work on Deception Pass Bridge, the larger of the two spans, is next.
About a third of the entire project has been completed, according to project engineer Shane Spahr from the Washington State Department of Transportation.
“Blasting is probably the most difficult and time consuming part,” he said.
“There are so many years of paint on these bridges it just takes quite a bit of time for the blast material to take that off.”
The bridges have been repainted every 10-20 years since 1935, he added.
A temporary construction shutdown because of COVID-19, and the reality of a Pacific Northwest winter, also took away some working days.
“They thought they were going to be able to work through one of our winters. They had a rude surprise,” said Ron Burke, an assistant project engineer from WSDOT.
The paint can only be applied between 35-115 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the same for steel replacement work. The project was also shut down temporarily in late March because of the state’s stay-home order.
Work has been impacted by COVID-19 besides the shutdown. Crews must be screened for COVID-19 and wear masks throughout the day. Spahr explained that those who are actually sandblasting and painting have not had to alter their operations too much since they would normally be wearing a respirator mask to protect themselves from the lead-based paint chips.
“Once they’re in their gear, their PPE, there is absolutely no way to get COVID transmitted between them because they are hooked into a fresh air breathing supply,” Spahr said.
Drivers are able to see the containment area’s white tarps set up while crews sandblast the old paint from the bridge.
A vacuum is attached to the containment zone to prevent any of the toxic particles from falling into the water below.
If the contractor has to drop the tarps because of the wind or any other reason, people may see a multicolored bridge. It will be painted four colors before it’s painted the final shade of Evergreen Green that it’s known for.
The color of the bridge depends on the stage of the painting process. The first coat of zinc is gray, and then the contractor applies the first stripe coat which is tinted green.
As paint cures, it tends to pull away at the edges (especially near irregular surfaces like bolts), Angelicchio explained, and a stripe coat helps ensure the paint sticks to the bridge.
The next stage of the process comes with a mauve shade, and then another stripe coat is added (this time a deep red) before the bridge is painted its familiar Evergreen hue.
The project also includes replacing about 10-15 percent of steel parts of the bridge by Angelicchio’s estimate.
There was already a lump sum of steel that the engineers knew would need to be replaced before the project began, he explained, and a small amount of unforeseen repairs have been required.
The areas of the bridge with the most rust are near the stress points or where water collects, he added.
During the day, the public may be able to see some of the crew dangling over the side of the railing or further down the bridge.
“It’s breathtaking,” Angelicchio said. “Watching the water underneath you and how swift those currents are…as long as you don’t have a fear of heights you shouldn’t have a problem.”
The picturesque location does come with its challenges though. Part of the bridge is inaccessible to the public — or, it’s supposed to be closed.
“When you put up fences, human nature is curiosity,” Angelicchio said. “Trespassing in areas that are off-limits has been a problem. People have cut locks, removed traffic cones and damaged lights and broken into the construction crew’s bathrooms.”
Most of the issues have come from out-of-towners, according to Angelicchio.
“Typically we do an investigation into what happened, what transpired,” Angelicchio said.
“Usually it’s that they want to get the right pictures — they drove all the way out here. We’ve heard every story at this point of why they needed to get in here and take a picture.”
If you are planning a visit to the bridges, park in the lot on the Whidbey side or inside Deception Pass State Park and walk the short hike up to try to minimize traffic at the top.
Motorists should keep in mind that the sandblasting work done during the day is loud — similar to the levels of a rock concert — and traffic is sometimes stopped after 8 p.m. for crews to replace steel sections.