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Road safety eroding at Rockaway

Neighboring property owner Albert Greiner stands where the slope used to be when they moved to their beachfront home, which is now about 20 feet farther back. The Greiners are not directly affected by the erosion, but the constant sliding has reached the shoulder of Rockaway Beach above.  -
Neighboring property owner Albert Greiner stands where the slope used to be when they moved to their beachfront home, which is now about 20 feet farther back. The Greiners are not directly affected by the erosion, but the constant sliding has reached the shoulder of Rockaway Beach above.
— image credit:

The view from Rockaway Beach is enough to slow many a motorist.

To that, Rockaway resident Albert Greiner can attest, since many drivers inch their way, necks craned, past his home. He can also attest to the power of Puget Sound, whose waters converge with noticeable effects on the nearby shoreline.

It only takes a walk on the beach, he said, or a ride on the ferry, to see how the wave action is eating away the hillside beneath Rockaway Beach Drive.

“It’s pretty impressive when you stand down here and look up at it,” Greiner said, surveying a guardrail perched precariously near the precipice.

Impressive as it may be, conditions at Rockaway have Greiner and others worried.

The road has long been an area of concern for the city. The problem was so bad – scientists say the slope erodes at a rate of about 6 inches per year – that by 2005, when consultants began work on the most recent study of the area, the hillside could no longer support several of the guardrail posts.

If the city did nothing, it would likely have to close the northbound lane within two years, according to the study, completed by Aspect Consulting in 2006. The study evaluated the complex coastal and upland processes that together are weakening the shoreline. Its goal was to find a long-term solution to allow users of the road safe passage.

It found that between 1872 and 1994, the hillside may have retreated as much as 48 feet; it also says that by mid-2005, slope failures had come within a foot of the edge of the road.

Now, with much of the public focus on utility repairs beneath Winslow Way – the City Council will decide tonight whether to approve a $1.3 million contract to continue designing the contentious project – planners are eying repairs at Rockaway as well.

Councilors have at recent meetings expressed concerns about Rockaway and other roads around the island that need to be repaired.

Though its portion of the 2008 budget has been cut in half to $250,000, the Rockaway project is one of only a handful of capital projects likely to move ahead this year; most others will be halted due to declining revenues that will severely limit the city’s capacity to complete capital work in the next few years.

City Engineer Bob Earl said the budgeted money is enough to carry the project through much of the preliminary design, which would be needed to secure permits.

In the short term, the city may have to shift the roadway to the west and narrow the lanes.

Longer term solutions include various types of walls – both at the shoreline and uphill – and a 140-foot long pile-supported bridge over the least stable area of the hillside. In addition to the several options listed in the study, planners also will bring forward a few of their own options for the council to consider.

Cost estimates in 2005 dollars for a fix run as high as $2 million; the city has budgeted $1.5 million for the project in 2009, though that number could change given the current financial uncertainty at City Hall.

Even if it retains firm financial footing, the project has some major obstacles to clear, Earl said. Permitting will be difficult, since the city would need the state Department of Ecology to sign off on the plan. The city has in the past had funding and designs in hand for shoreline road projects – Earl cited one at Manitou Beach – only to be stymied by denied permits.

Part of the problem is the complexity of the site, which is environmentally sensitive. Located on the island’s southeastern shoreline, just south of Pritchard Park, Rockaway Beach is home to a “feeder bluff” – meaning it is the main source of sediment to the beach.

Much of the shoreline is armored, except for a short stretch at the north end of the road.

The waters off Rockaway Beach are home to salmon and other animals that are dependent on the maintenance of the cur

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