BURLINGTON — Replacement of the temporary northern span of the Interstate 5 Skagit River bridge was underway as scheduled late Saturday night and officials estimated the job would be complete by morning.

“So far, so good,” said Travis Phelps, the Washington Department of Transportation spokesman. “We should be opening at 7 a.m. if everything goes as planned, but we have a pretty big job ahead of us, so that could slip a little bit.”

Workers spent nearly three months building the new span, but planned to install it in a matter of hours.

The massive operation involved sliding the temporary span out and rolling the 900-ton permanent span — built on the west side of the bridge — into place.

Phelps said the process of cutting the temporary span loose — which began before the full closure of I-5 Saturday evening — could take up to four hours.

A handful of onlookers gathered on the south bank to watch the work unfold, and a few said they had brought provisions to watch all night — if they chose to stay.

Installation of the permanent span does not, however, spell the end of closures at the bridge. Workers will immediately begin a new project to increase the overhead clearance to 18 feet, with seven nighttime total closures planned from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. during weekdays and 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. on weekends. An additional 36 partial closures (18 in each direction) from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. are planned.

Detours will be the same as when the bridge was out this summer: Trucks are encouraged to use the Riverside Bridge just east of I-5, while passenger cars can use that route or several others, including Highway 20 and Memorial Highway or Highway 9.

The bridge span collapsed May 23, after an overheight load struck critical supports, causing the northern span — along with two vehicles — to drop into the river. Three people were pulled from the river, all with non-life threatening injuries.

Less than a month after the collapse, workers installed a temporary span for the 160-foot north section of the bridge. During that month, however, commuters used detours, often adding up to 40 minutes to their travel times and sending the roughly 71,000 vehicles that normally cross the bridge each day onto side roads not meant to handle even half that many cars.

Businesses near the bridge also felt the pain of the closure, seeing sales drop as much as 80 percent. The area was declared an economic disaster area by the U.S. Small Business Administration and several business owners sought Economic Injury Disaster loans to help keep afloat while they waited for sales to bounce back.

After the temporary span opened on June 19, traffic once again streamed across the bridge, but at a lower 40 mph because that section was narrower than the rest of the bridge. Oversize loads — such as the one that caused the collapse — were still forced to exit before the bridge and take detours around it.

The load that caused the collapse was not the first load to strike the bridge, and past inspections revealed potentially dozens of impacts to the bridge that could have weakened the overall structure.

— Reporter Daniel DeMay: 360-416-2192, ddemay@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Daniel_SVH

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