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With the West Seattle High Bridge closed until at least 2022, talks begin about building a replacement

Diagram showing where the structural problems are on the bridge.
From SDOT.

As we learn more about the unexpected and sudden closure of the West Seattle High Bridge at the end of March, it’s looking more and more like the decision to close the bridge prevented a horrific tragedy. Cracking on both sides of the support structure of the longest span was on a path to meet at the center. And if that happened, engineers said, the structure could have collapsed. That’s six lanes of traffic on the city’s busiest non-interstate bridge plummeting from a ridiculous height.

I’m sure there will a lot of investigation into how the bridge got to this point and whether the city could have prevented it. But first, we need to acknowledge that inspectors and the city’s transportation chain of command made a very good call by closing it when they did.

The cracking immediately slowed when traffic stopped, but it has continued. The bridge itself is so massive that it makes up a huge percentage of the total load on the structure, so removing traffic can only do so much. This is also why they are not going to be opening the bridge to walking and biking. You don’t want to be up there.

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The high bridge will be closed at least through 2021, and this means biking will only become more important for West Seattle as the path over the low bridge remains one of the best ways to cross the Duwamish River. See our previous story and video, in which Anthony Palmieri of West Seattle Bike Connections walks through some popular bike routes in the neighborhood.

The city announced Wednesday that it will cost $33 million to maintain the lower swing bridge (which is prone to failures itself), change traffic controls, and to stabilize the bridge so it doesn’t fall down on its own and can handle the workers and equipment needed to make a bigger and more expensive fix.

City engineers are also not confident that they can repair the bridge at all, and they definitely cannot fix it well enough to make it operational for its full expected life span, which should have had it operational until the 2050s or 2060s. If they can repair it at all, the city doubts they could get more than 10 years out of it. So conversations are already starting about replacing the bridge entirely, an effort that will be measured in hundreds of millions of dollars. Which we don’t have.

It is difficult to state how disruptive this will be not only to the lives of people living and working in West Seattle, but also to the city’s transportation budget. Without a big new revenue source, the money will have to come from somewhere. And as the city faces a massive health crisis and an enormous sales tax shortfall from the outbreak, there just isn’t going to be money lying around. I would bet this puts talk of a new Magnolia Bridge to rest. Perhaps the same goes for a new Ballard Bridge. But more immediately, sizeable chunks of money already budgeted will become pretty appealing, too. District 1 (West Seattle) Councilmember Lisa Herbold has already suggested cancelling the Center City Streetcar project, something she has tried and failed to do several times already. But this time she might have a good shot at it. Any other city project with a large budget that has not yet begun construction could also be at risk. Capital projects like big repaving projects are also a pretty juicy pot of money, which would mean falling further behind on road maintenance.

Oh, and did I mention that the court case against the transportation-slashing I-976 is still up in the air and Seattle’s Transportation Benefit District expires at the end of the year without a clear path to renewal? Ahhh! Breathe, breathe, remember to keep taking deep, calming breaths (but not in close contact with others, there’s still a pandemic out there. Oh, that didn’t help with the calming? I’m sorry. This year sucks.).

The state budget has a lot more money to work with than the city, including hundreds of millions budgeted for freeway expansion projects that would make greenhouse gas emissions worse. We’ll have to see if the will exists in Olympia to move some of that money, though. The national government is also releasing lots of stimulus funding, and infrastructure projects could get a boost. It’s unclear whether any of this will make it to the West Seattle Bridge, but maybe? My point is that I don’t see how Seattle funds this project on its own, at least with current revenue options.

Amid all this uncertainty, SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe has done a great job leading the city’s response. Perhaps it helps that Zimbabwe is a West Seattle resident himself because he’s personally in this with the neighborhood. He was not here when the cracking began, and inspectors were already monitoring the problem before he took the reigns at SDOT in early 2019. He has been honest and clear through the whole process of what will be a defining challenge of his tenure at SDOT. He has never sugarcoated this problem as city leaders sometimes do, and I think any effort to do so would have backfired horribly. Instead, Zimbabwe has been a trustworthy leader, which is going to be vital to get buy-in from frustrated residents and to find a path forward that is both politically viable and forward-thinking.

And it’s going to take strong leadership and cross-agency, cross-jurisdictional teamwork to get through this. If a new bridge is needed, the obvious solution is to build a structure that carries both cars and Sound Transit light rail (and maybe a bike path, too?). This could potentially save some money and move West Seattle light rail up the implementation schedule.

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25 responses to “With the West Seattle High Bridge closed until at least 2022, talks begin about building a replacement”

  1. Peri Hartman

    I wrote this before somewhere and it’s worth repeating: build a new bridge that combines highway with Link rail ? Why build two bridges when one will do ?

    1. asdf2

      Of course, one bridge that carries both cars and light rail is what should done. But, that’s assuming that different agencies can work out a deal.

      I’m imagining a scenario where SDOT wants the new bridge ready to open in 2025, while Sound Transit balks and says they don’t have money to pay for the rail portion until 2030. SDOT says that’s unacceptable because drivers can’t wait until 2033 for the bridge to open. So, what happens. The city builds a car only bridge with the money it has. Then, 5 years later, Sound Transit builds a separate bridges off to the side for light rail. A complete and total waste, but so long as each agency is looking out only for its own interests, that’s exactly what we’re going to get.

      1. Peri Hartman

        The first step is to design the bridge to accommodate rail.

        With I-90, Sound Transit was created about the time the design for the replacement bridge started. It wasn’t till ST3, about 25 years later, that they actually had money to do any rail construction.

        We could do this for West Seattle, and presumably, with much much less cost than building two bridges.

      2. RossB

        That also assumes that a light rail bridge and an automobile bridge serve the same destinations. They don’t.

        You might be able to save a little bit of money by reusing new pylons that are built, but that is likely a tiny amount of money.

        If anything, adding a bike bridge could be more promising, since bikes and cars can do the same sort of thing. If the bridge no longer makes that giant crest over the Duwamish, and instead makes a steady rise to hill, it would be a very reasonable way to get to the upper part of West Seattle (e. g. the Junction). Adding a lane for bikes (on the side) should be relatively cheap.

      3. Joe Z

        Combined rail+car bridge is a must. It could save Sound Transit a ton of headaches and result in a simpler, less expensive, politically friendly route.

        All of Sound Transit’s alternatives were limited by having the high bridge in the way. The preferred alternative has a very challenging left-hand turn from the high bridge to North Delridge, with the light rail bridge having to contend with port operations (if built on the north) and then having to cross the highway and drop down in elevation enough to build an elevated station, and then climbing a giant 200+ ft hill up to Genesee. The south side of the high bridge is a steep, environmentally sensitive slope along Pigeon Point. Meanwhile there has been a ton of new development in North Delridge along Genesee right where the preferred alternative lines are drawn. Plus the resistance to an elevated guideway is near-unanimous farther up the hill.

        So the moral of the story is that the DEIS is likely to favor the “Yancy-Andover” alternative which is pretty close to parallel to the West Seattle Bridge anyway. So with the new information of not having to design elevated train tracks around a giant bridge, the clear solution is to just send the light rail up the hill via Fauntleroy, which has the smoothest grade and the right-of-way already owned by SDOT. Plus Fauntleroy needs to be rebuilt anyway. The only downside is the Delridge station location right along the bridge would be less-than-ideal, but the political winds were steering that way anyway (see the Yancy-Andover alternative which is the most popular among the various interest groups in W Sea).

  2. Gary S Anderson

    Why do we build bridges with a only a 75 year life span out of a material that cannot be easily maintained? Seems like a steel truss bridge (like Aurora and I-5 ship canal bridges) can be more easily maintained. Aurora bridge opened in 1932, West Seattle bridge in 1984.

    1. Ballard Biker

      Steel truss bridges require constant maintenance to prevent rust, especially in marine environments, but yes, steel truss bridges can be more easily repaired.

  3. James

    What did the streetcar ever do to deserve this?!

    1. RossB

      Um, its a piece of junk. Any excuse to kill it should be welcome.

      1. It’s literally the most useless thing ever. It doesn’t go anywhere useful, and it doesn’t even have its own lane, which makes it no better than a bus. And it makes the road very dangerous to bike on, which makes it worse than useless.

  4. toby

    I can only assume we will see a big uptick in bike commuting out of West Seattle. Do you think there is any possibility of accelerating the planned improvements on East Marginal?

  5. Jort

    It’s impossible to overstate just how disruptive this will be to the West Seattle car community. There are no options for redistributing the previous levels of automobile traffic to other routes; the 1st Ave SW bridge was already above capacity during commute hours. People who drove will now literally be forced into non-driving alternatives whether this hurts their feelings or not. Of course, they can sit in a 3 hour traffic jam each way, if they choose. But that will be the choice, and there is literally nothing anybody can do about it, period, end of story, done.

    I really don’t think people have fully grasped just how transformationally enormous this is going to be. It is also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for this city to aggressively demonstrate the capabilities of alternative transportation methods. If we can backfill old transportation needs with sustainable, scalable methods like transit and cycling, we will be an example for the nation. The city can spend hundreds of millions to retain their old problems, or they can start buying e-bikes for every person in West Seattle and start building meaningful transit connections from every street on the peninsula to the rest of the region.

    We can truly show the world that we can break free of the car-dependent lifestyle, but it’s going to take political courage and a serious commitment. But one thing that won’t change no matter what the city decides to do: the automobile experience as West Seattle residents have known it is now gone and there is absolutely, completely, literally nothing they can do to make it better for many, many years. And I know that this is infuriating and enraging, honestly, I know there is apoplectic nuclear rage when I say this, but that doesn’t change reality and the reality is that car driving is not going to be a feasible option anymore. This is not a debate.

    Begin your personal mental adaptations right now.

    1. Jort

      I should note that the automobile-supremacy advocates on the West Seattle (Automobile) Transportation Coalition are lustily using this opportunity to demand the elimination of road diets, and their solutions to this are “better signal timing” and “more lanes for cars.”

      None of that changes the 1st Ave S Bridge choke point, or the other bottlenecks all over the system.

      City leaders would be wise to completely blow off the garbage contributions of the WS(A)TC and their board of former traffic engineers.

  6. bill

    Good points, Jort. The cycling community has to be ready to push back vigorously against the “MOAR LANES!” crowd. For example, removing the recently installed, rather pathetic, southbound lane reduction on West Marginal at the Duwamish Longhouse has already been suggested. Significant physical bottlenecks abound. Ripping out bike lanes and rolling back road diets will not change the fundamental chokepoints created by intersections and narrow roads. Surface streets are not freeways, and no amount of restriping or tinkering with signal timing will change that.

  7. Peri Hartman

    Build an extra bike lane on the low bridge. The right “shoulder” on the bridge is wide enough to ride in. But it would need some sort of safety barrier.

  8. Peri Hartman

    Get the city to sponsor interest-free loans to buy an e-bike. Or perhaps a free trial, where the city compensates bike shops to rent e-bikes to people for 2 or 3 times.

  9. William

    It’s almost inconceivable that a competent SDOT would not have been aware that the bridge was failing years ago. I’m thankful that they found out before the bridge collapsed but not reassured. Why should anybody trust the current SDOT to do a good job building a replacement?

    1. RossB

      Blame Kubly and Murray. Before the Move Seattle levy, they both knew that the levy wouldn’t pay for the projects they told voters it was going to build. But they said nothing. They lied, and swept the issue under the rug. I’m sure Kubly was already planning his exit, while Murray just figured he would ride the storm, and maybe blame Kubly after he had secured his next gig. To hell with both of those crooks.

      1. William

        This seems like a separate issue. SDOT has some serious engineering deficiencies if this near collapse has taken them by surprise. It’s the biggest structure they oversee. Somebody needs to clean shop and ensure that only the competent employees remain.

      2. RossB

        Yeah, but my point is these guys (especially Kubly) lied, and swept issues under the rug. It wouldn’t surprise me if they did the same with this bridge. Maybe they were told that the bridge is “more or less OK, just keep an eye on it every couple years” when in fact they could see some major problems from the beginning.

    2. Mark

      There is another possibility…..And that is there is nothing wrong with the bridge…..Nothing that a few minor repairs could not fix…

  10. westseattlebikeconnections

    This will be the catalyst for converting West Seattleites from car commuters to bike commuters, if the City gives it just modest support: Continue full speed on the East Marginal Way S Corridor Project

    1. westseattlebikeconnections

      and the Delridge Multi-modal Corridor Project;
      get going on Morgan/Sylvan/Orchard east-west bike lanes implementation;
      fix the paving and restore the striping at the Chelan 5-way intersection;
      maintain the new bike lanes on Avalon;
      do the Fauntleroy Boulevard Project as soon as ST3 alignment is decided;
      and don’t regress on what little is actually installed now for bike and pedestrian safety.

      If you are a leader in an organization or company that depends on East Marginal Way S for mobility, or the seaport for business, or 99 or I-5, please by May 5 write a letter in support of the City’s BUILD funding grant application for EMW. Contact Megan Hoyt at SDOT. This is this project that will make people actually want to commute by bike for the long term, instead of just try to survive it for a short time.

      1. William

        The current bike route over the lower bridge is far from ready for prime time. It as if it was designed with as many dangerous road crossings as possible. Plus, you have to worry that the upper bridge might fall on you.

  11. Don Brubeck

    William, re: “Plus, you have to worry that the upper bridge might fall on you”: Yes, it’s a good time to wear a helmet when riding on the low bridge ;-)

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