A short list of issues that held up work on three waterfront bridges downtown includes snowstorms that shut down suppliers, emergency road repairs and more than 4,000 encounters with sea lions.
The bridges at the base of Seventh, Ninth and 11th streets officially reopened on Thursday. The work to replace them closed street ends for months and hit businesses that rely on foot traffic hard.
But as contractors prepare for construction on the next set of bridges at Sixth, Eighth and 10th streets this October, how they go about the work depends in no small part on how much they bothered the sea lions the first time around.
Though the pinnipeds may be trapped and killed by the state at Willamette Falls and Bonneville Dam to protect threatened salmon and steelhead runs, they remain protected under federal law.
The state has to limit any “take” of the animals, said Tony Snyder, Area 1 manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation.
Take doesn’t necessarily equate to a sea lion death caused by bridge work. It can refer to any time crews are working in the sea lions’ environment and the pinnipeds notice and appear upset by the disturbance.
Sightings of sea lions are frequent along the Astoria Riverwalk as the animals swim under trolley trestles, haul out on structures below Buoy Beer Co. or unleash echoing bellows at each other beneath former seafood processing plants near Ninth Street.
Sea lions are opportunistic feeders, constantly on the lookout for a fishy meal. The commotion contractors caused when they were driving steel piles for the new waterfront bridges proved to be especially intriguing.
“We actually had situations where we were driving a pile and sea lions would swim out to look,” Snyder said. “We’d have to stop work and wait until they went away.”
“They seemed fairly interested watching what we were doing.”
Two people’s entire jobs involved standing at construction sites, on the lookout for sea lions.
Federal managers allowed around 40,000 sea lion encounters across the first phase of the waterfront bridge project. With around 4,000 encounters, the state remained well within what the permit allowed — and no sea lions died because of construction — but there are questions about how work will proceed during the next in-water work period in November.
For the first set of bridges, contractors landed on a way to place more piles per day, significantly speeding up that portion of the work. The National Marine Fisheries Service is reviewing the state’s monitoring reports and could determine this method causes more of a disturbance to sea lions.
To continue with a method that has more of an impact on sea lions, the state would need to modify how it monitors for the animals. Snyder said ODOT would have to widen the range it monitors and increase the number of people watching for sea lions, all of which comes at a higher financial cost.
If the federal agency determines the faster method bothers sea lions more, Snyder said ODOT will likely ask the contractor to use a less-impactful — possibly slower — method to drive piles.
No sea lions were in sight when Mayor Bruce Jones and other community leaders reopened the first set of bridges during a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 11th Street on Thursday.
Jones thanked the businesses for their patience and the contractors and state and city staff for all their work on the project.
During his remarks to the crowd, Snyder acknowledged the aggravation the work caused in the community. He noted, however, that it often takes years to replace a single bridge and contractors replaced three in about eight months.
“We’ve got three more to build and it’s going to be more aggravation,” he said. But, he added, the new structures will last 100 years.
“We won’t be back fixing this bridge again for a long time,” he said.