Steel tariffs force delay in completing U District pedestrian bridge

Friday, August 31, 2018

(As reported in The Spokesman Review by Nicholas Deshais. At left: A train trudles under the University Gateway Bridge in Spokane's University District Friday, July 27, 2018. The arch, suspension cables and the forms for the bridge deck are in place and the $12M pedestrian and bicycle bridge is expected to open in early October. Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Work has stopped on the pedestrian bridge in Spokane’s University District, and its anticipated opening date in September has been pushed back more than two months to late November.

Much of the blame for the delay can be placed on the tariffs President Donald Trump placed on global steel this spring, steel that is is needed for the bridge’s guardrail.

“All steel in this country is a huge problem. Getting steel is very difficult,” said Tim Hutton, project manager for Garco Construction, which is building the bridge for the city. “The mills can’t keep up with supply. Just today, I got another email of a mill delay.”

After Trump placed a 25 percent tariff on imported steel, American construction companies began to seek domestic sources. Not used to the demand, domestic mills have struggled to keep up, even with longtime customers like Garco, which always sourced its steel from mills in the U.S., said Hutton.

According to the American Iron and Steel Institute, construction accounted for 43 percent of all international steel shipments to the U.S. in 2017.

The Trump administration allows companies to apply for exemptions from the tariff, but the complex process has been weighed down by a deluge of applications. According to the New York Times, the federal Commerce Department has received 37,000 exemption requests, a much higher number than expected. As of Aug. 20, just 2,871 requests have been ruled on, with 1,780 approved and 1,091 denied.

The pedestrian bridge has faced other troubles of a type more common in construction.

Work was temporarily halted after issues with the bridge’s grade, which must be shallow enough to allow for ease of riding and walking.

“We stopped working on that for awhile so the engineers could do some figures,” Hutton said. “It’s a very dynamic structure, and things aren’t working as perfectly as they were on paper. It’s finicky. We’re working on it.”

Another issue came with some visual imperfections on the bridge’s arch. After the company painted it white, the blemishes became even more noticeable, and the city asked to have the paint sandblasted and the surface smoothed out.

Hutton said most of the issues are common in a construction project and shouldn’t be cause for alarm.

The work stoppage and delay are unrelated, though both conspire to push the eventual opening of the bridge into winter, a time when few people will be inspired to walk or ride a bicycle over the latest addition to the Spokane skyline.

Hutton said he hadn’t worked out an anticipated work completion date, but hazarded a guess.

“Thumb in the air, Thanksgiving,” he said.

UPDATED: AUG. 31, 2018, 9:21 A.M.