By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
More than 100 people filled, and spilled out from, tonight’s South Park Neighborhood Association meeting, facing a county rep who came to confirm the South Park Bridge – their “lifeline,” many called it – is virtually certain to close June 30. (The time is even set – 7 pm.)
The fury: “If this was the University or Fremont or Montlake Bridge … would you be doing this? You come here so casually to tell us you’re closing it!”
The fear: “If you shut that bridge, you’re going to be cutting my arm off, and I’m going to bleed to death.”
The frustration: “It’s very clear that you all know what’s at stake. I know what’s at stake. The captain of the port knows what’s at stake. But somehow that voice, that story has not penetrated the powers-that-be that make the decision (regarding funding).”
The fighting spirit: “Who do we need to contact NOW to get the money we need for the bridge? We can’t undo the last 13 or 40 years, but we need to get the money NOW.”
The voice of frustration was that of Gael Tarleton, Seattle Port Commissioner, the only elected official present at the meeting, though representatives were there on behalf of King County Executive Dow Constantine, County Councilmember Jan Drago, and City Councilmembers Sally Bagshaw and Mike O’Brien. Tarleton was not a scheduled speaker, but finally spoke up from the sidelines, where she was one of several dozen standing against the walls when the South Park Neighborhood Center‘s chairs were all gone.
She promised to help make sure South Park residents’ and businesses’ stories are heard – and she suggested the county was not blameless in the failure to secure replacement funding:
But at the front of the room for most of the meeting, listening and answering — matter-of-factly and sometimes sympathetically — was the county official who led the briefing, King County Department of Transportation Road Services Division director Linda Dougherty (left, with SPNA president Dagmar Cronn and King County Executive Dow Constantine‘s transportation expert Chris Arkills in background): “We are at a point now where we have run out of time.”
She recapped the federal government’s rejection of the county’s request for a grant that would have paid for about 80% of the bridge replacement’s $127 million price tag, in a process that saw the City of Seattle’s so-called “Mercer Mess” project get $30 million. That, too, brought some bitterness from attendees – while Dougherty tried to say, “We weren’t competing against (that project), ” one woman in the audience exploded, “You WERE competing against Mercer!”
The theme of perceived neglect and disrespect for South Park resurfaced multiple times as attendees spoke out or asked questions. There also was some future hope, as Dougherty and others spoke of 11th-hour realizations by potential partners – the City of Seattle, among others – that the closure of the South Park Bridge, which carries 20,000 vehicles a day (at least a fourth of them trucks), will be a very big deal.
It’s imperative for the area’s survival for them to realize it, said many. “You CAN’T close that bridge!” one attendee insisted. “You close that bridge, and every business on 14th (Avenue South) will close.” Others murmured and nodded agreement.
But, it was suggested, those who live and work in the area can push the process forward too – by speaking out more forcefully. Bagshaw’s representative noted that her boss’s South Park Bridge e-mail folder has only five messages – only five people had written to her to express concern.
Before the discussion of action, though, came the pleas to clarify confusion: Why hasn’t the funding been found by now? And, why is the bridge suddenly too dangerous to keep open?
For the former question, Dougherty went back over everything she said she’d been through in her 12 years with the county. “What hasn’t helped is that the City of Seattle has in the past said, the ‘sliver by the river’ (of unincorporated land including The Bridge) is King County and that’s your problem.” She also pointed out that the county actually only owns the south half of the South Park Bridge; Tukwila owns the other half but, she suggested, doesn’t care a lot either.
And the regional ballot measure that was rejected a few years ago didn’t help, it was explained – that one contained money for a new South Park Bridge. And now, said Dougherty, “For any one local government to fund this bridge, it’s too big, it’s too costly, it really does require partners, grants … none of the cities has come forward to say ‘we’d like to help you, how big of a check do you need?'”
Port Commissioner Tarleton jumped in from the sidelines at that point, describing herself as “an expert” in proposals to the federal government.
“The fact so many (South Park funding proposals) have failed is a reflection on the region’s approach to the proposal. Persistent losing is a sign of not effectively competing.” That drew applause.
She said she would help put together “as effective a proposal as we can” for more than the $18 million that Dougherty had said the county hoped to receive from a federal jobs package, hopefully to start cobbling together the full sum.
For now, though, as an attendee pointed out: “The bridge is scheduled to close. It’s done. The bridge is going to close! Now, who is going to spearhead the committee to raise the money to build a new bridge? Who’s in charge?”
Arkills said his boss, County Executive Constantine, is ultimately responsible and has been fighting for funding for years – again, an unsuccessful fight. But, he too said, “People are starting to be motivated to help … As long as something’s in the future, people don’t pay attention, but now that the South Park Bridge is literally on the verge of closing, people are starting to pay attention.”
They also were paying attention tonight to the question of why, though its deteriorating condition has been known for years, a shutdown is suddenly looming.
“What changed?” asked one man. “We were here three months ago, presented with the new design, told it would be built in parallel, maybe one month total downtime … What changed?”
Dougherty fell on her sword there, saying there was “a breakdown in communications in our division .. we told the (previous King County Executive’s administration) last summer, it was time to close The Bridge, but “we got a little sideways in our communication internally.”
“Just a little?” muttered one man.
Dougherty reiterated that a study being done right now is not likely, in her view, to reveal that the bridge could stay open longer; if anything, she said, it might suggest the bridge is so unsafe, it should be shut down sooner. She explained the rationale for the June 30th date – “Part assessing safety, part assessing operational capability … School buses use the bridge, and we don’t want to interrupt the school season. But – once the weather gets hot, we have a problem with the bridge’s metal leaves expanding in the heat; the bridge can get stuck closed, or we can’t get it down properly … Every summer we’ve gone out during a hot spell and cut off with an acetylene torch the interlocking teeth. We’re down to the gum lines. There’s nothing left to cut.”
Sighed one woman in the crowd, “I’m seriously going to buy a canoe.” People near her laughed. She said, “You laugh?”
Dougherty said they’re planning for how those 20,000 vehicles will be dealt with, but there’s nothing to announce yet. They do know that once the bridge is closed, its “leaves” will have to be kept open so that boats can pass, until they can be removed – a process that’ll cost about $3 million. Then the rest of the demolition will follow, though not necessarily immediately, according to one county timetable.
So what can concerned citizens do now, besides have meetings (another one led by grass-roots activists is scheduled for 6 pm tonight, South Park Community Center). Said Dougherty: “If you are in Seattle, write letters to your mayor and City Council, that would be very helpful. Also write to your state contingent including the govenror – the state has NOT put any money into the bridge-replacement project.”
Added Arkills: “You have to turn up the pressure on the people atop the food chain – the governor, the Speaker of the House … we’re talking about replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct for billions, the 520 bridge for even more billions, the South Park Bridge is almost a rounding error in all that – put pressure on the state.”
Meantime, the clock ticks to June 30. 7 pm, to be exact.
“How will we survive this?” one man asked mid-meeting. “Anyone who can answer that, you have my support.”
The county insists it’s making the plans now.