It's been a long time coming, but the project to repair and upgrade the tunnels on State Route 14 just east of Lyle is now virtually complete.
As of Oct. 1, the tunnels were again open to two-way traffic, with all asphalt, paving, and tunnel work finished. On Monday, the contractor applied the last bit of sealant to the new concrete portals.
Work to remove the aging wooden portal and timber supports on the easternmost of the twin tunnels, built in 1933, got under way on March 30. The wooden portal was replaced with a concrete portal, while the inside was "shotcreted" to help stabilize the rock for safety. The vertical clearance was also increased.
In addition, both tunnels underwent rock-bolting work to secure the interiors.
All that remains now is to install recessed lane reflectors in the middle of the highway, a minor item that can be completed in about an hour once the materials come in. That final task is expected to be handled in another week or two, and will be done at night so as not to impede traffic.
Also, some trees will be planted along the shoulder between the two tunnels, but the landscaping work will not impact traffic.
The tunnel reconstruction project was expected to be completed by the middle of July, but the project proved to be more complicated than first anticipated.
Chuck Ruhsenberger, area engineer for the Washington Department of Transportation and project manager for the work on the tunnels, said the delays couldn't be predicted.
"We couldn't be certain of what would be needed until the old wooden portal came out," he explained. "Once the liner was removed, we saw more rock that needed to be removed, and realized the concrete portals needed to go farther into the tunnel to keep rocks from falling."
The project was originally estimated to cost $1.24 million, but the additional work boosted the final cost to approximately $1.6 million.
Ruhsenberger, who is based in Vancouver, shot down a rumor that the screening above the tunnel was taken down for aesthetic reasons or to address visual considerations related to the National Scenic Area. He pointed out that the safety mesh was put up to help contain rocks jarred loose during the construction period, and was not intended to be permanent.
"What we did during construction, because we were taking out the wooden portal, we put up a mesh to protect workers and the traffic," Ruhsenberger said. "Once the new portal was completed, we took it down. That was always the plan."
Keith Fredrickson, public outreach coordinator for the Columbia River Gorge Commission, said the agency played no role in the decision to remove the rock screening.
"They (WDOT) wanted to put the screen up, and we said, `yes, not a problem,'" Fredrickson explained. "It was always intended for the screen to come down when the project was completed."
Ruhsenberger added that the tops of the tunnel portals have been covered with gravel to keep any rocks that might fall from rebounding onto the roadway.
"The gravel absorbs the impact of rocks and keeps them from bouncing," he said. "Safety is our number one concern. The rumor was the screen was needed for safety, but the concrete portal stops the rocks, and the mesh is not needed any more."
A WDOT crew periodically clears away any rocks that have fallen onto the top of the portal.
The contractor on the project was Scarsella Bros., Inc., of Kent.