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Highway reopens with low-tech safeguards

11:55 am October 19th, 2012

By Pat Jenkins

The Dispatch

The reopening

Metal shipping containers installed at the base of an unstable hillside on State Route 7 are intended to stop falling rocks from reaching the roadway and creating a hazard for motorists. (Courtesy photo/Washington DOT)

of a troublesome portion of State Route 7 may be only temporary, in part because the state’s preferred method for stabilizing a hillside is proving to be too expensive.

Closed to traffic since June 7, the stretch of two-lane highway between Alder Cutoff Road and the State Route 161 junction was reopened by the state Department of Transportation (DOT) last Wednesday.

It isn’t back to normal, however. It has a reduced speed limit of 20 miles per hour and narrower lanes – each nine feet wide – in each direction. Due to the narrower widths, truck traffic should continue using the detour routes on SR-161 and Alder Cutoff, DOT officials said.

Since the problem of the hillside potentially giving way hasn’t been solved, DOT will continue monitoring it for signs of more slippage. To help protect passing motorists from falling rock and other hillside debris, large, weighted shipping containers have been placed along the highway between the hillside and the jersey barrier. If the risk of more slides becomes too high, DOT will close the highway again, said Kevin Dayton, region administrator for the agency.

“I take the safety of the traveling public very seriously. If we see any reason for concern, we will shut the road down again,” Dayton said.

Geotechnical engineers have studied the situation since slides closed the highway initially in April. They say there is potential for significant amounts of debris to tumble onto the highway.

DOT planned to make permanent repairs to the slope, but bids last summer from contractors for the job were higher than the state-estimated cost. Officials settled on temporary repairs.

The project will be readvertised next spring in the hope of attracting affordable bids, officials said.

DOT wants to stabilize the hillside by installing a soil nail wall – virtually a blanket material that will be fixed permanently with soil nails. If the project had gone forward as originally planned,  initial estimates were that it would have taken until October to complete. Officials said that timeline would have been typical for such projects.

Officials said the proposed technique for shoring up the hillside is common in many places in Washington, but will be used for the first time at the SR-7 trouble spot between Alder and LaGrande.

DOT has received no negative reaction from the public about the decision to delay the more expensiive, longer-term solution, but the agency has gotten criticism over the length of the highway closure, said spokeswoman Kelly Stowe.

No injuries or vehicle damage was reported when the slides occurred last spring and again in June.

According to DOT, the  stretch of highway that was shut down averages 1,600 motorists per day when open. It’s one of the main routes to and from Mount Rainier National Park.

A detour during the closure took motorists through Eatonville, creating traffic jams that were worst on weekends and  holidays during the peak summer months for visiting the park.

“We understand that this extended road closure has been a challenge for the local residents and for motorists traveling to Alder Lake or Mount Rainier,” Dayton said. “We greatly appreciate everyone’s patience while we worked to find a way to reopen the highway.”

Updated information  via telephone about the status of SR-7 or any state highway is available by dialing 5-1-1, an automated DOT service.

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