West Seattle high-rise bridge on its last legs

Harbor Island and West Seattle Bridge - brewbooks - Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

It has been almost a month since the Seattle Department of Transportation announced the emergency closure of the West Seattle High-Rise Bridge. The announcement came due to a reported accelerated rate of cracking in the concrete foundation of the bridge and therefore would remain closed until further notice.

“Even in the midst of a pandemic, the Seattle Department of Transportation has been closely monitoring our critical infrastructure. Last night, our engineers identified safety risks in our West Seattle High-Rise Bridge and are now taking swift action to protect the public by removing traffic while the next steps are assessed,” stated Mayor Jenny Durkan on March 23. While the West Seattle Bridge has been monitored for repairs since 2013, new cracks discovered in late 2019, early 2020 pushed the city to close the bridge until another plan of action could be agreed upon. Before the stay-at-home order in Washington State, approximately 100,000 vehicles and 25,000 transit riders used the bridge daily, with a population of 80,000 in West Seattle.

The condition of the bridge doesn’t come as a surprise to many, as the bridge is already 35 years into its 75-year lifespan. Within those 35 years of increasing pressures from winter rain and snow, and an increase in overall traffic, new issues impacting the bridge were unexpected during initial construction. The city of Seattle is now concerned not only with when the SDOT can evaluate the bridge but how the city will fund repairs during the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic

To address the current infrastructure situation, the City of Seattle has started virtual town hall meetings with members of the city council, the public and SDOT. During the April 22 meeting, SDOT announced that the bridge was still safe for crews to work and monitor, and not in an immediate threat of collapse.

In the process of developing the design and monitoring of the bridge, traffic control and additional accommodations necessary to continue construction, the SDOT has approximated $33 million for the repair cost.

Seattle City Council Members have been emphasizing the importance of funding initiatives for the West Seattle Bridge, starting with addressing the current infrastructure issue in a special session this year. Council Member Joe McDermott stated, “Planning for a full replacement must begin right now, with the state and federal government stepping up to help expedite the process and funding.” Council Member Lisa Herbold has recommended diverting funding from other infrastructure projects, such as the Center City Connector streetcar. She also proposed raising more money for transit in and out of West Seattle with a citywide ballot measure, replacing the expiring $60 car-tab tax for transportation.

While public transport and the light rail would be the best alternate route for some Seattle commuters, there has been a reported decrease in the tax revenue for buses and the light rail with the recent impact of COVID-19. Additionally, the City of Seattle remains uncertain about how transit systems will look when social distancing measures are put in place after the end of Washington’s stay-at-home order.

Other measures are currently underway for how commuters’ can still travel through Seattle as SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe stated the issues of the bridge will outlast the coronavirus pandemic. Repairs might not finish until the spring of 2021. During a briefing for Seattle City Council Members, Zimbabwe shared, “At the same time as we are doing some of the design work around shoring this spring, we will have a better understanding whether and if a repair is possible.”