Lessons from the bridge project (part 1)

Today we are revisiting a major renovation project that took place last year. It technically began back in July 2021, when we had a local tree company take down a Dougfir that was leaning over our woodshed. It was a little sad because I liked how our house used to nestle in amongst the trees. Unfortunately, those trees had become a significant liability, especially during ice storms and our increasingly fire-prone summers.

Anyway, the tree company wanted to drive their chipper across the bridge to quicken up the process. They dutifully propped up the two main support beams with some timber and starting driving across, when -CRACK-. Uh oh.

Heading over, I saw that some of the planks on the bridge were sagging.

One of the support beams for the bridge had just cracked. Fortunately, it cracked with the grain, and not across, so the entire structure didn’t collapse into the creek and the crew was able to safely reverse off of the bridge. Below, you can see part of the vertical supporting timber (arrow pointing right) that probably prevented a disaster. The smaller arrows point to one of the long cracks that developed in the support beam.

The tree company was able to complete their job (chronicled here), albeit more slowly than anticipated because they now had to haul the debris across the bridge to the chipper by hand.

The area where the tree was removed created a rock garden opportunity (here). But, now we were left with a broken bridge that needed to be repaired. Thus began the year-long frustrating adventure to get someone out to fix it in the midst of a global pandemic with supply shortages and higher-than-average material costs from a construction boom.

At first, we were reluctant to drive across the bridge for obvious reasons. But after one of the engineers drove their his big pickup across with no fear, we decided it was okay for our smaller, lighter weight vehicles too. The supporting timbers were still in place and L built a wooden pad to more evenly distribute our vehicle weight over the broken area (upper left portion of the bridge in the photo below).

I never would have imagined back then how hard it would be to get a simple bridge repaired. There was the shock of seeing that first estimate from a reputable bridge company (we could reroof the house, put on new siding, and put in new insulation for less than half the same price). There was the scramble to find a cheaper option. Our neighbor offered to drag away the old bridge and then drop a few timbers across so we could finish building the bridge ourselves (no thank you). We looked at a railcar bridge option, but the guy for that yanked us around for months before flaking out and saying he couldn’t do it. Then, there was the very pushy guy, who said he could install a reclaimed concrete bridge for cheap, but wanted to put in a longer bridge than we needed (eating into our limited turnspace) and it had to be done within the next 4 days (no thank you, the quickest way to shut me down is to be super pushy and tell me I have to do something immediately).

And, perhaps worst of all, was all of the various BS environmental hoops we had to jump through at the county, state, and federal level to replace a bridge in a riparian area. Not to mention that the situation wasn’t considered an emergency by local agencies because the bridge hadn’t collapsed yet. Now, I firmly believe in doing everything possible to help our environment and I know that we are in the midst of a huge environmental crisis, but this required process had nothing to do with saving the environment and was more of a money grab for various entities. About a third of the total cost was spent on having someone spend less than half an hour walking down the creek bed sticking in a few flags here and there to mark the high water zone and then going back to the office to “research” the impact and draw up a plan so that the new bridge wouldn’t impinge into the existing creek bed. And, in the end, it didn’t even matter, because modern day bridge designs already account for this and don’t impinge into the waterway at all.

We found out later that we were very, very lucky that the entire bridge hadn’t collapsed in the year that it took to get it legally replaced, especially over the winter with the torrent of water roaring through. The whole process was excruciatingly slow with lots of useless circular loops that could have been easily solved if the “professionals” would just talk to each other (Person A says you need to talk to Person B. Person B says no, you need to talk to Person A. Over and over. But, the two won’t ever talk to each other directly. So you play middleman, pointlessly and inadequately trying to get someone to do their job. Then, Person C walks in with a completely different (and wrong) interpretation of the law that contradicts those of Person A and B, so the whole mess starts again).

In the end, we ended up going with the bridge construction company that originally quoted the huge price tag because they were seemingly the only competent people in the state. By this time,  June 2022 had arrived and we were finally going to get a new bridge. Yay.

First, they needed to take down the maple tree next to the driveway to fit in all of the equipment. Yes, another tree gone.

We were very fortunate that they were able to do this for us, as the other less reputable construction companies were either going to make us cut down the tree ourselves (which would have caused another 3-6 month delay as all of the tree removal services were backed up from the 2022 snow storm – here) or, they were going to rip the entire tree out by the roots and in the process destroy the creek bed that we had just been forced to spend thousands of dollars to protect.

Looking back, I guess we could have saved a fortune by going with the neighbor, the railcar guy, or the concrete guy. But, then no emergency vehicles or fire trucks would cross the bridge during an emergency (they require a certain load-bearing limit) and we would potentially be on the hook for some hefty fines for not following code in at least two of those hypothetical scenarios, not to mention the liability if the bridge broke while someone was driving across. I’m not much of a risk taker, so we went the safe, legal route. I’m so glad we did.

Moving along on the tree removal. The crew was fast and efficient.

Lowering branches by crane.

Almost done.

Stump. This would get removed during the next phase of the project.

Afterwards, it seemed so bare and quiet in the harsh afternoon sun. The quiet before the storm.

Next time, the construction of the new bridge begins!

Lessons learned during this stage:

  1. Patience and persistence pays off.
  2. Be nice to irritating people under stressful situations, especially if their decision will affect something important you. This is SO HARD to do.
  3. The environmental regulations that we were put through seemed arbitrary and out-of-scale for a small residential owner. Particularly, in comparison to what I see happening to the creeks in the large-scale tree plantations owned by several mega-timber companies around us.
  4. It’s a relief when you finally make a decision, one way or another, and the rest is out of your hands.

02/25/2023 – 03/25/2023: Rain, more snow, sun, wind. A little bit of something different every day. The cold was getting old. Good riddance, I hope. Lowest temperature for period = 31°F, highest = 60°F. 6.6 inches of precipitation. 

Notes: Rufous hummingbirds returned on 3/18. Crocus in full bloom, snowdrops and winter aconite are fading.

Garden chores accomplished: Planted seeds and a few garden plants, moving gravel for paths and placing rocks in the back rock garden, finished pruning one apple tree. Dug a fence post hole!

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Kris P

    What a nightmare! I’m surprised you both didn’t end up with ulcers. I’d have never expected that kind of hoopla over repairing/replacing a bridge that was clearly necessary to enter the property. It’s interesting how convoluted construction rules can get, as my husband and I discovered in 2019 when we decided to embark on a home renovation that involved pushing out our kitchen by 5 feet into our back patio. That required an expensive geological survey and multiple reviews by the city.

    1. Garden Curmudgeon

      It is shocking how convoluted things are for construction nowadays. So much depends on the local regulations and it can be completely different just a few hundred feet away in a different county. Many of our neighbors just sort of do what they want and build without consulting any government officials or applying for permits. As long as they aren’t caught, it works out for them. I’m sort of hoping with your geological survey that you at least got some mastodon fossils out of it all (kidding!).

  2. hb

    Wow. What an ordeal to get through. I’m looking forward to reading the next chapter. Bravo to you for getting through it. Good illustrative photos of the bridge failure, too.

    Hopefully your garden was some soothing consolation to reduce the stress. And best wishes for the fence post hole project! At least (I hope) no environmental reviews and engineering analytical reports required for those.

    1. Garden Curmudgeon

      Ha – I don’t think we need any environmental reviews or engineering reports for putting up a deer fence. At least it is something that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. I figure if I put in one or two every weekend, I should be done in a few months.

  3. danger garden

    Well now I am horribly stressed out and can’t wait for part two! Yikes. That maple tree was a looker.

    1. Garden Curmudgeon

      Yeah, sad to see it go. Paved paradise, put in a parking lot…

  4. Anna K

    Initial reaction is I’m kind of stunned they would try to drive such heavy equipment across a timber bridge in the first place, but good gawd what an ordeal doing so set off for you! So very sorry to see your maple have to go too. I can understand it looking bare after it was taken out. I often wonder why it’s so difficult (and expensive!) to get the needed permits. I agree it often feels very out-of-scale and superfluous for your average residential project. All, I can think is a crappy way to maintain job security on their part. Looking forward to what’s next.

    1. Garden Curmudgeon

      Much bigger equipment had driven across before. I guess it was finally the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

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