TOPPENISH, Wash. — Drivers traveling between here and Goldendale may get a Christmas present this weekend.
Constructions crews are scrambling to link U.S. Highway 97 with a new bridge over Satus Creek, allowing traffic to flow both ways during the day for the first time in months.
They still won’t be done with the road project, located 17 miles south of Toppenish. But they’re shooting to have at least a temporary paved surface with both lanes operating “maybe by end of the weekend,” said Moe Davari, the project engineer with the state Department of Transportation.
“The weather of course is a key issue,” Davari said.
After this weekend, provided the weather lets them pave, crews will shut down for the winter and resume work on shoulders and permanent surfaces in March, Davari said.
The project, which started in March, is the second new bridge this year along the highway between Goldendale and Toppenish, a heavily-used trucking route linking Yakima Valley products with markets in Oregon and California.
The other one is Butler Creek, about 24 miles farther south, where construction crews replaced a culvert with a bridge to allow a better path for migrating fish and wildlife.
Both projects are scheduled to be completed in the spring, though the Butler Creek Bridge has been open for several months.
At Satus Creek, contractors have been running behind schedule because of spring floods and a work halt during the highest fire danger of the summer, which pushed the work into the fall, Davari said. However, they expect to catch up and finish on time, he said.
The $12.7 million project, paid for by a combination of state federal funds, involves a new bridge over Satus Creek, replacing one built in 1942. The new bridge is wider to improve safety, longer to allow the creek more floodplain and stronger to allow heavier loads.
Workers also straightened a nasty curve leading into the bridge to reduce collisions. That drew a thumbs up from truckers waiting their turn to follow the pilot car Wednesday.
“Anytime they take a curve out, that’s the best thing to do,” said Bryan Conner, a 48-year-old truck driver from Bonanza, Ore., on his way to California with a load apples. He drives the section of highway between Toppenish and Goldendale about once a week, he said.
The highway sees heavy truck traffic. Of the 3,400 average daily vehicles, up to 700 are trucks, Davari said.
The spot also has a history of accidents, with a recommended curve speed of 55 mph, though the highway limit is 65 mph.
In the past 13 years, there have been 21 collisions near the bridge — all within a 0.7-mile span encompassing the bridge, according to department statistics. One of them was fatal; one caused a serious injury.
Nobody likes the construction delays but truckers shrugged and said they’re going to be an improvement. “I think it’s definitely worth it in the long run,” said Richard Church of Bend, Ore., hauling for Gardner Trucking of Chino, Calif.
He has seen accidents along the curve near Satus Creek.
Farther south, not only are cars moving freely across a new $2.9 million bridge over Butler Creek, but wildlife should be passing freely underneath it, too.
At Butler Creek, the highway intersects with a favored thoroughfare for deer, bear, elk and other animals, captured in image by the Department of Transportation’s hidden cameras. In fact, department officials labeled the creek crossings as one of the top nine deer kill sites in the state’s 7,000-mile highway network.
“There aren’t that many,” said Abbi Russell, an agency spokeswoman.
Overall, the state sees more than 1,000 collisions between vehicles and wildlife per year.
The bridge, paid for with revenue from the 2005 9.5-cent state gas tax increase, features fencing to corral animals underneath for safe crossing. The span also replaced a culvert, which should allow trout and steelhead to move more freely.
Work has shut down for the winter but crews will paint stripes and finish other final details in the spring.
• Ross Courtney can be reached at 509-930-8798 or email@example.com.