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Northwest Passage Bridge opens to traffic

by CAROLINE LOBSINGER
Staff Writer | September 23, 2023 1:00 AM

SANDPOINT — With its engine rumbling, the white 1964 Corvette drove over the new Northwest Passage Road.

It was the first vehicle to pass over the new $998,751 bridge, the first Leading Idaho Local Bridges project to be completed under the program.

"Not doing your maintenance is just like deficit spending," Gov. Brad Little said after helping dedicate the bridge Friday. "If you're not maintaining your roads and bridges, it's just like borrowing money and not having a way to pay it back or deficit spending. Fixing this is like investing for the future."

Little said he learned that lesson while serving on then-Gov. Butch Otter's Transportation Task Force. Those lessons helped form the genesis for his Leading Idaho program, of which the bridge program is a part.

"We did this without raising taxes, but we did dedicate part of the online sales tax to do bonding so it's all paid for, for big projects," Little said. "Otherwise, we'd have to take money out of doing our maintenance, so now [we can do] the big projects, the local projects, and others."

That commitment not only improves safety by improving the state's roads and bridges, but it also facilitates commerce.

Friday's dedication recognizes both the achievement of building the bridge but also what it means for the community, Independent Highway District board member Mel Bailey said.

"The first of the bridges [under the LILB] to be completed in Idaho, the bridge happens to be completed at Schweitzer mountain resort, the largest ski area in Idaho," Bailey said.

The resort sees over 400,000 visitors per year and is the county's third-largest employer. The bridge is a key link in the resort's infrastructure, providing access to parking, businesses, and more than 300 residences.

Bailey said the bridge started to show signs of failure in 2013, with the south abutment starting to lean. Over time, the wing wall moved 22 inches, and the road surface dropped.

Weight and lane restrictions were imposed, cutting the bridge to one lane of travel and limiting weight on the structure to 5 tons. Not only did the bridge have to be plowed with a pickup truck because regular plows were too heavy, Bailey said it also hampered access to one of the resort's main parking lots as well as most delivery trucks and emergency vehicles.

"On a busy weekend, over 2,000 skiers, hikers, and bikers could pass under this bridge," Bailey said. "The bridge width restrictions forced pedestrians, bicycles, and motorists to share a single lane."

With a majority of the tax revenue it receives used to maintain Schweitzer Mountain Road, Bailey said there was little money left to replace a bridge. The highway district applied for funds through the Leading Idaho Local Bridge program, part of Gov. Brad Little's "Leading Idaho" initiative, which uses some of the state's surplus to make investments in education, transportation, water, and broadband infrastructure, among others.

As part of the Leading Idaho program, during the 2022 legislative session, Senate Bill 1359 appropriated funds for local transportation projects, including $200 million for local bridge repair and replacement.

"Completion of this bridge is just another step in the long, continuing, and often arduous journey to maintain the roads and bridges in Idaho," Bailey said. "But Idaho is doing an outstanding job."

Resort officials said construction of the new bridge is key to the resort, leading to one of its main parking lots.

"The bridge is critical to the resort operations and the Schweitzer community," Schweitzer CEO Tom Chasse said. "I appreciate the collaboration between Schweitzer, IHD, the state, along with all contractors, engineers, etc., to achieve success in such a short window of time."

The previous bridge, while built in the 1990s, was in poor condition, and there were concerns that if it wasn't replaced, the road would be closed for the upcoming ski season, officials said.

"Traffic had been reduced to one lane, and it had a weight limit of 5 tons. This load limit was so restrictive it could not be plowed by standard plow trucks or used by commercial delivery vehicles," said Shawn Metts, principal engineer for HMH Engineering, which oversaw the project.

Unlike a cast-in-place method often used for bridge construction, the Northwest Passage Bridge was built using geosynthetic reinforced soil abutments and a prefabricated bridge structure. The method allowed for an accelerated construction schedule, allowing the bridge to be built in 2 1/2 months, Metts said. In comparison, traditional cast-in-place construction could have taken six to nine months to complete the bridge.

By using the soil abutments and prefabricated structure, crews were able to start in June and complete the bridge in time for Schweitzer's Fall Festival earlier this month — and the upcoming ski season.

"This project put a lot of Idaho residents to work and will continue to energize the economy through commerce on Schweitzer Mountain and Bonner County," Metts said.

Construction of the bridge took a village of entities and individuals, officials said.

Among those with a role in the bridge's construction was the Independent Highway District, which has jurisdiction over roads on Schweitzer; the Local Highway Technical Assistance Council, LILB program administrator; HMH Engineering, which designed and oversaw the construction administration; and Big Sky, which was the contractor on the project; Schweitzer, Century West, and others also took part in the project.

Metts said the bridge has a 75-year lifespan, but noted that bridges are often utilized for much longer periods. Bridges in Idaho are inspected by the Idaho Transportation Department every 48 months.

In all, 404 of the state's 2,475 locally owned bridges qualified for the LILB program, Laila Kral, administrator of the Local Highway Technical Assistance Council, said.

"That's a pretty big chunk, close to 20% of the bridges," she added.

In queuing up the car's short jaunt across the bridge, Bailey told the crowd of officials, residents, and others that the car was the quickest and fastest American-made car at its time.

"Just like this Corvette has represented fast and fun, Schweitzer has brought steep and deep recreation, fun, and smiles to thousands of kids and people," Bailey said. "This bridge will help extend those fun times and miles of smiles to future generations."

photo

(Photo courtesy ALYSSA BLANK)

Idaho Governor Brad Little is joined by local officials as they celebrate the opening of the Northwest Passage Bridge, the first project to be completed under his Leading Idaho Local Bridges program. Pictured are Tom Chasse, Schweitzer; Rep. Mark Sauter, District 1A; Gov. Brad Little; Mel Bailey, Independent Highway District, Ryan Luttmann, Century West; and Shawn Metts, HMM Engineering; and Brian Dagon, Big Sky Corporation.