Saturday, May 23, 2009

What do you mean the bridge is closed?

Memorial Day weekend brings a wave of people to the Olympic Peninsula. People who visit just once a year, or just once, period. People who for 364 days a year have no need to know the Hood Canal Bridge is closed.

We met many of those people today.

My assignment this morning was to stand at the corner of SR 3 and SR 104 and be the bearer of bad news for motorists who approached without any idea the bridge is closed.

Doesn’t sound too challenging, but the task ended up testing the limits of my skill-set. As a public relations professional, I’m comfortable talking to people – and taking verbal abuse from frustrated commuters is just part of my job.

However, as car after car hesitated on the high-speed highway, or pulled past the orange barrels positioned to keep cars off the bridge, it instantly occurred to me that my job today was not to be a smiling ambassador for the state of Washington. I had to communicate quickly, give directions as succinctly as possible, and then sternly send people on their way. If I didn’t, the cars would back up on to the highway and create a dangerous situation for everyone.

I learned today how stressful controlling traffic can be. At one point there were seven or eight cars, all parked and pointed the wrong way on a section of pavement big enough for about 12 cars. I found myself doing more yelling than talking as I directed the vehicles away from the bridge: STOP, NO, GO BACK, WATCH OUT, HANG ON ONE SECOND, WRONG WAY, KEEP MOVING, YOU CAN’T STOP THERE.

Even in such a high-stress situation, I did a lot of smiling and met a lot of nice people – and no shortage of frustrated people. I heard the standard four-letter words from several people upon telling them they have to drive around the canal.

I was called partner, mate, boss, and Mr. Direction Guy. I was told that our Web site says the bridge is open (It does not.) and I was told the TV news said the bridge is open (haven’t confirmed this).

No less than two people tried to sweet-talk me into letting them cross the bridge (despite the fact their cars would have ended up in the deep water of the Hood Canal had they tried to cross). One guy seemed convinced, if given a proper runway, he could jump the canal in his Lincoln Navigator. I think (hope) he was kidding.

Maybe the most surprising interactions I had today were with the people who live in Tacoma or Seattle or Olympia. So many people said, “I saw the signs saying the bridge is closed, but it just didn’t click … It didn’t register.”

There was also an international flavor to my day as befuddled foreign tourists in GPS-guided rental cars destined for the scenic Olympic Peninsula hit a dead end at the closed bridge. One man simply pointed at his GPS screen with an incredulous look on his face that made me second-guess myself for a moment. "The bridge is closed, right?"

(As a sidenote, we did contact the GPS companies several months ago, but they don't make adjustments to the software for short-term traffic revisons.)

The folks we redirected hail from all over the world. We've talked to people from Austria, Australia, Germany, several Asian nations. This wasn't completely unexpected. Despite our best outreach efforts, and the numerous signs and warnings along the routes that led people to the bridge, we're going to miss some people.

A man from Germany took the news in stride.

"Time is on our side," he said as he recalibrated the rental car GPS.


Wally May said...

I can imagine how difficult it is having to face people who haven't been privy to the news of the bridge work. Keep in mind that it isn't your fault that they don't know, you're the messenger. Hopefully, it's better than not having a job.

Jamie Swift said...

WAY better than not having a job. It was exhilarating, challenging, frustrating ... every adjective one would use to describe the perfect job. Thanks Wally May.

Gary P. Clayton said...

We plan on visiting the Seattle
area, including Victoria and
Vancouver, BC in June. I hace
been following your blog from day
one and have enjoyed watching
the progress on The Hood Canal
Bridge as we plan on crossing it
on June 17th. For a while, I
wondered if I should use a different route to the Ferry crossing to Victoria, but because
of your constant updates and the
amazing progress that has been made, I made ferry reservations from Port Angeles yesterday.
Thanks for keeping us informed and
thanks to all the workers involved
in this amazing project.
Gary Clayton, Seneca, SC

Jamie Swift said...

That's nice to hear. We are working hard to keep people updated with the latest information so they can plan their trips accordingly. Thanks Gary.

Joyce said...

I'm sorry... but I laughed out loud reading your post. It was so funny! People are amazing... bus driver was telling us there are signs lit up in Seattle area telling people about the bridge closure. How could people not know? My sister works on the B.I. ferry and has had to deal with a few surprised and angry people, too. I am amazed. Good writing! Thanks for the chuckle.

Tony and Claire Toth said...

I didn't imagine that I would enjoy reading the blog, just thought I would check for updates. Thanks for keeping us posted and giving this project a personality. It makes the waiting and being "trapped" on the peninsula a little bit easier to take.

Penney said...

I too laughed at your description of yesterday's interactions. Not exactly a holiday for you! People's reactions to things always fascinate me. Denial (as in those who saw the signs but it didn't register) is a way to cope with something we just don't want to deal with, something overwhelming. It's usually saved for life's big traumas but the frenzy around holiday destinations qualifies for some! I'm glad you had some kudos for a job well done.

We were away last week and thought we would stay away over the weekend since we live on the main Jefferson country rd. off 101, however, we found traffic elsewhere far worse so headed home Sat. Traffic up the canal was backed up south of Hoodsport so stopped at the state park and cooked dinner. After that the traffic was no worse than most highways we'd been on and better than some.

Anonymous said...

I can understand how people looking at the DOT homepage could be confused about whether the bridge is open. There's a big picture saying it's opening early, amd a small notice saying it's closed. Most people, who aren't aware it's a 6 week closure, might assume that early means now.

Anonymous said...

i was going to go to portownsend but my mom told me that the bridge was closed so we didnt go.
going around it a nice drive and if i didnt have 8 kids and 2 grandbabies riding with me i might drove around but after going 700 miles to get there we decided just to goo closer to home.

Anonymous said...

What do you mean they didn't know the bridge was closed? Seems to me that WSDOT has done an amazing and "user friendly" job with this entire project and its resulting PR. Some people will always be clueless.

OP Resident said...

It doesn't Suprise me after all they voted for Obama didn't they.....

Keep up the good work it's been a fantastic ride watching this project come to fruitation. You've done one heck of a job keeping us informed on the prooject.

Sarah said...

Oh Jamie, I miss you!! Sounds like a ton of fun. I love the guy who thought he could jump the Canal. He'd have made the guiness book of world records for that! At least the weather's been nice for you. So close to reopening- keep up the good work!