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.