Planners of the upcoming repair project on the Lewis and Clark Bridge at Longview, Wash., are giving the public a say in the final schedule.

The project will involve an estimated 200 nighttime closures of the Columbia River span beginning this fall and stretching into 2005 as crews replace the bridge deck, add seismic upgrades to the support structure, install guardrails and lights and make other improvements to the 72-year-old structure.

Officials from the Washington State Department of Transportation shared information about the project and took public comments at a meeting Wednesday in Rainier. Another meeting is scheduled for tonight in Longview.

The agency has scheduled a series of open houses about the project in July, including July 24 in Astoria.

The proposed work schedule calls for the closures to occur Sundays through Thursdays from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. The public is being asked whether it prefers a closure period of 9:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m., and if closures should occur seven nights a week instead of five. Both lanes of the bridge will be open to traffic during the day, with the exception of some one-lane restrictions.

The current schedule also includes four to six weekend-long closures that have not yet been scheduled. Revis said the agency welcomes comments from the public about which weekends would suffer the most disruptions from those closures.

Ballots were handed out at Wednesday's meeting.

Citizens can also cast their vote on the WSDOT Web site, www.wsdot.wa.gov/projects, or by calling (360) 442-1341.

For the several dozen local citizens at Wednesday's meeting, the particular hours of the closures were less a concern than the issue of emergency medical transportation to Longview, where most Rainier-area people go for treatment.

WSDOT has been working with the Longview hospital and clinics, ambulance services and other medical care providers to devise a system for getting people across the river during the bridge closures, said Amy Revis, the agency's Kelso area manager. Options being considered include a ferry that can transport an ambulance across the river or a temporary medical facility on the Oregon side.

"All this is still being hashed out," she said.

The Life Flight helicopter was considered, but because bad weather prevents it from flying, it is not a dependable enough option, Revis said.

Records show that ambulances make about seven trips a week from the Oregon side during night hours, a figure that doesn't include people with medical emergencies who cross the bridge in other vehicles, she said.

Of special concern to many in Clatsop County is the timing of the project during the upcoming Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. Organizers said informational signs will be posted on Interstate 5 and other approaches to the bridge informing visitors of alternative routes to the coast.

Rosemary Siipola, transportation manager for Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Council of Governments, said project planners have been asked by people in the tourism industry not to publicize the bridge closures. They worry, she said, that such announcements will cause worries that access to the coast is blocked, in much the same way that a recent slide that closed U.S. Highway 101 at Yachats on the central Oregon Coast gave people the impression that the entire coast highway was closed.

Revis said people are already calling WSDOT offices asking if the bridge has been closed.

But Rep. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, who heads Oregon's Lewis and Clark Bicentennial planning group, said some notice needs to be given to visitors who might otherwise find themselves stuck on one side of the bridge or another if they arrive at night.

"I think there is a way to explain this without saying 'the bridge is down!'" she said. "I think no information is vastly worse than some helpful notice."

There is no definite schedule for the 200 nighttime closures, which will be determined by weather and other factors, WSDOT officials say. After studying several proposals, the agency finally settled on a technique for replacing the bridge deck that involves installing 105 pre-formed panels, but because of the confined space, the work cannot be done without closing both lanes for several hours at a stretch.

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