Tacoma certainly has had its share of broken bridges. But lately Hans Breivik ’88 has been coordinating the repair of one of them.

The double-bascule bridge across the Hylebos Waterway at the Port of Tacoma was built in 1938 and has been frozen in the open position since 2001. “Double bascule means that it has two leaves that open and close,” says Breivik, a construction management graduate who is now managing the $15 million Hylebos project. “When it worked, it worked on kind of the principle of a teeter-totter.” He raises his arm, imitating the way one arm of the bridge would, with a counter weight, open and close.

Hans Breivik on Hylebos bridge in Tacoma
Hans Breivik oversees the $15 million project to repair the 1938 Hylebos bridge in Tacoma. (Staff photo)

One day, nearly a decade ago, a drive shaft broke and the bridge stopped opening. The city could have replaced the broken part for about $50,000, says Breivik. But after examining the timber, steel, and concrete apparatus, the council members decided the bridge should either be abandoned or overhauled. In 2004 an arson fire on the east side damaged the bridge’s motors and steel. And scavengers have since made off with a lot of the machinery and metal parts for scrap.

Eventually, though, it was decided to save the bridge, which once connected the port’s Blair Peninsula with the mainland. “It’s kind of a bridge to nowhere,” says Breivik. “But the port needs it.” A refurbished bridge would provide an emergency escape route in case of a fire or chemical spill and would allow the port to add a new terminal as well as serve two more new terminals on tribal land across the waterway.

Breivik met me at his office at Quigg Brothers near the silos, refineries, and waterways of the Port of Tacoma. Pictures of his wife and daughters mingled with souvenirs of some of his previous big projects. The bolts, lights, and signs are reminders of the hours he and the crews he managed have spent repairing and replacing some of the Northwest’s water landmarks.

In 2006 Breivik’s employer won the bid for the Hylebos project. It’s more than just replacing the machinery, says Breivik, taking a long white binder from a shelf. He turns to a side elevation of the bridge and its approach. “We had to remove these timber piles and then dig eight-foot shafts and pour columns,” he says, pointing to the piers leading up to the bridge. “Then we set precast concrete girders on top.”

With each 100-plus-foot-long span, Breivik’s crew will have to replace the existing motors. “New motors, new gears, new instrumentation, new controls,” he says. “It’s an interesting project. Not overly difficult, but it has some challenges.”

Breivik is not new to challenge. In addition to having worked on projects around the Port of Tacoma, including a job rebuilding the dock beneath the Working Waterfront Maritime Museum, he has worked all around the world. After a short stint with a firm in Bellevue, he traveled to Arizona to build a dam and later to Egypt to demolish one building and build an addition to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Then he moved to the east coast and spent some time in St. Lucia.

“A few years ago I decided I had enough of being a gypsy, so I came home,” says Breivik. He ultimately settled in with Quigg Brothers, a fourth-generation-owned Aberdeen-based business that does projects involving ports, docks, bridges, and waterways.

The Hylebos project is more than just repairing a bridge, says Breivik as we drive down Taylor Road to the site. It includes rebuilding the approaches and mending the fence system, which is made up of wood pilings around the base of the bridge. The workers found that once the horizontal side rails were removed, the vertical pilings would fall right over. “So we replaced 60 pilings,” says Breivik, pointing to the fences. “We hadn’t expected to do that.”

We climb up to the approach and walk past a group of workers pouring concrete. Breivik looks skyward. In order to replace certain parts on the lifting arms, the crew will have to unhinge the open bridge and jack up the arms to get at the bearings, measure them, and replace them, he says.

If Breivik could keep a souvenir from this project, it would probably be the old control tower, he says as we climb the narrow metal stairs inside the small two-story building where the controller would spend his days watching the waterway. Besides the fact that it’s too big to bring to his office, “it can’t be saved,” he says, pointing to the rust eating through the walls. A brand new, air-tight version will be put in place before the job is completed in October 2011.

When this job is done, Breivik wouldn’t mind working on Tacoma’s other broken bridge. The 97-year-old Murray Morgan, just a few miles across the port, was closed in 2007 for safety reasons. The city recently bought it from the state and reopened it to pedestrians and bicycles. But it still needs work, about $61 million worth. “And,” says Breivik with a grin, “it’s going out to bid.”