With nonstop ferry service, a toll-free information number and a helicopter on standby, the Washington State Department of Transportation is ready to begin the long-awaited repair project on the Lewis and Clark Bridge at Longview, Wash.

The project will be kicked off at a public ceremony hosted by WSDOT at 3 p.m. Monday at the Port of Longview.

The event will feature interactive displays, light refreshments and speakers from both sides of the river, including WSDOT Secretary Doug MacDonald and Southwest Region Administrator Don Wagner, Oregon Department of Transportation Regional Director Kay Van Sickle and Rainier business owner and Port of Longview Commission President Larry Larson.

The agency will share information on the project closure schedule, emergency medical helicopter transport service and the communications plan, and will introduce the project contractor, Max J. Kuney Company of Spokane.

Some preliminary work has already begun on the $/33-million project, which is designed to upgrade the 74-year-old span that links Longview and Rainier. The main project, the replacement of the bridge deck - and the closures that go with it - are set to start in mid-May.

The bridge will be closed a total of 120 nights to accommodate the deck work. There is no set schedule for the nighttime work, which will be spread out throughout the construction period, but WSDOT has promised two weeks advance notice for the full-bridge closures. Information about closures will be made available through the media, as well as on the agency's Web site, www.wsdot.wa.gov/projects/lewisclarkbridge, and a toll-free phone number, (866) 427-4630.

Along with the nighttime closures, there will be 120 single-lane closures, and four weekends in which the bridge will be closed from Friday night to Monday morning. The weekend closures will be announced three weeks in advance.

The total closures are unavoidable because there is too little room on the bridge to pull out the old surface and install the new pre-set panels, WSDOT officials say.

The nighttime closures, which will take place between 9:30 p.m. and 5:30 a.m., were timed to affect the least amount of traffic, according to Chief Inspector Kevin Miller.

"Traffic dramatically falls off after 9:30," he said.

Providing for emergency medical transportation to medical facilities in Longview for Oregon residents during the closures was a major issue for project planners, who looked at various proposals, including a plan to carry ambulances across the river by ferry, before deciding that air transport was the most feasible. During the closures, a helicopter will be stationed on the Oregon side of the bridge to handle any emergency transports.

To handle regular traffic, the department has arranged to have the ferry at Westport operate continuously during the nighttime and weekend closures. Service will also be free during those periods.

The project's official completion date is December 2004. But the entire project could be completed by January 2004 - the contractor is offered incentives to finish the work by then, Miller said.

Along with the replacement of the deck, the project also includes replacement of the raised sidewalks with five-foot shoulders, seismic retrofitting to the bridge supports, a new drainage system to eliminate runoff directly into the river, raising and widening the south approach to eliminate a dip in the roadway, and adding new lighting and guardrails.

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