Officialsdiscuss impact of SR543 roadword

Published on Thu, May 11, 2006 by ack Kintner

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Officials discuss impact of SR543 roadword

By Jack Kintner

“We’ve been in the design phase on this thing for a long time, and the sooner we begin moving dirt the sooner we’ll be on our way out of town,” said project engineer Chris Damitio of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) last week speaking about the State Route 543 reconstruction project now under way in Blaine.

Damitio was speaking informally at an open house WSDOT hosted at the Blaine senior center last Thursday that was attended by representatives of virtually every local and state government and law enforcement agency involved with the project.
Many of those same people plus state and local politicians will return for the project’s official ground breaking tentatively planned for May 31.

Engineers from WSDOT and the contractor, IMCO Construction of Bellingham, talked about how the project will be done, and border officials from both the U.S. and Canada talked about steps being taken to expedite traffic through inspection, especially trucks once they reach the two dedicated northbound border inspection lanes.

The $35 million project involves lowering the highway as much as 25 feet to pass under a planned D Street overpass, and widening it from two to five lanes plus installing an interchange at D Street.

“Lowering the road is unusual,” Damitio said, adding that the only nearby project to point at for comparison’s sake was done some years ago on Mercer Island, where I-90 was lowered and even covered for about a third of its route across the north end of the island.

Poor soil quality and restricted space for construction will aggravate short-term congestion for what will hopefully result in a long-term solution to chronic border backups, Damitio said.

Congestion is expected to significantly increase toward the end of June when the trucks-only northbound lane on SR543 is closed, prompting some locals to suggest alternatives such as a temporary truck lane parallel to SR543 on residential streets. The extra lane will re-open on the project’s completion in the fall of 2008.

Temporary lanes outside the construction area were rejected in earlier planning, Damitio said, because of neighborhood objections and because constructing them would add time – and therefore cost – to the project.

“The nature of the soil underneath SR543 requires us to drill 700 holes for reinforcing pilings between H Street and the border to back up the retaining walls on either side of the road cut,” WSDOT engineer Todd Harrison said, each one three feet wide and up to 80 feet in depth.

The holes will slightly overlap, and reinforced pilings will be placed in every other hole with regular concrete piling filling the spaces between them. The narrow confines of the projected road bed does not allow the contractor to keep two northbound lanes open and still operate safely, Damitio said.

Others have suggested working 24 hours a day to complete the work more quickly, but Tony Anderson, project manager for IMCO Construction of Bellingham, the primary contractor, said “We’re permitted now at the state, local and federal level to do the work without working all night, something that would increase labor costs and would require things like generators to run lights and so on. Changing these things now means delays.”

Communicating with the traveling public will hopefully reduce frustration and delays, according to WSDOT’s Dustin Terpening.
“We’ll put information about border delays on freeway signs beginning south of Bellingham which should help divert traffic,” Terpening said, adding that for the Peace Arch that information on border wait times is automatically relayed from sensors embedded in the roadway.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) representative Jay Brandt agreed.

“Despite the delays, most of the trucks will continue to cross here (on the truck route) instead of going to another crossing because this is where the customs brokers are,” he said.

Brandt added that the U.S. agency can do little about backed up northbound traffic headed for Canada, but that they are anticipating some delays for southbound traffic “that will be addressed as they arise,” Brandt said.

Spokesperson Paula Shore of the Canada Border Services Agency said that they’re working closely with their U.S. counterparts to manage truck traffic across the border.

“We’re keeping both lanes open as much as possible,” she said, “and long term, we’re expanding the pre-approval process through such things as the joint U.S. and Canadian Free and Secure Trade (FAST) program, similar to the NEXUS program for cars, and the Canadian Customs Self Assessment (CSA) system, in which trusted carriers pay duties and other expenses on a monthly basis for goods crossing the border based on a self-inspection process.”

“We’re looking forward to a dedicated FAST lane,” Shore said, “and that’s coming, although we don’t yet know how soon.

“FAST works well even though it takes time to set up because unlike NEXUS in which only the people are pre-approved, with FAST the driver, the vehicle and the cargo are all pre-approved.”

For more information as the project unfolds, and to discuss problems, WSDOT’s communications official Dustin Terpening encouraged people to call him at his Burlington office at 360/757-5997.
There are also two web sites, one set up for the project by WSDOT at projects/sr543/i5_canadian and another by CSA that includes border wait times at