The Alaskan Way Viaduct gets all the attention, but the South Park Bridge poses an even-more-urgent problem, with no guaranteed solution – yet. Here’s where things stand now.
By Jack Mayne
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
The crumbling 78-year-old South Park Bridge across the Duwamish is dangling by a $99 million federal grant thread as to whether its future will be a closed bridge or a brand new span.
The bridge carries almost 20,000 passenger vehicles and 3,000 trucks a day across the river from an unincorporated King County sliver in South Park to the City of Tukwila and beyond.
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The bridge’s closure would mean traffic would have to be diverted to the already crowded First Avenue South Bridge across the river.
County Council Chair Dow Constantine, a candidate for county executive, says he is pushing particularly hard for the $99 million TIGER grant, or Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant, a federal bailout program Congress approved to help states with shovel-ready construction projects. The decision on that grant is expected by mid-February.
Officials in Washington, D.C.. indicate chances of getting the grant are slim, not because there is anything wrong with the application, just that there are an overwhelming number of applications for projects all around the nation.
Total replacement cost for the bridge is about $150 million, and the county has about $17 million on hand. The county has already gotten a previous federal; grant for the bridge and has spent about $10 million for engineering designs and an environmental impact statement. Tukwila has contributed about $3 million. King County also recently got yet another federal grant for $4 million for right of way purchases. The county owns the bridge, but rebuilding it with county funds would bankrupt the entire King County road fund, which is about $50 million a year for the entire county.
“This one bridge project would gobble up our ability to do anything else (for years) if the county had to pay for the entire project,” Constantine said. “I have been back to Washington, D.C., with our delegation from the County Council lobbying for this a couple of times, but I made a special trip . . . in December to meet with several members and their staffs just to get some funding because I am very, very concerned about the condition of the bridge and the lack of attention we are generating from the rest of the region and from our nation’s capital.
“I wrote a letter supporting this current application (because the bridge) is almost 80 years old (and) it scored 4 points on the Federal Highway Commission’s 100-point sufficiency rating scale – that is bad.”
He says the bridge will have to be closed unless something is done, closing off a key access point to Interstate 5 and, more importantly, to the industrial lands on the west side of the Duwamish – there are 30,000 jobs in the region. It is also a lifeline for the people of South Park, White Center and the surrounding area.
Constantine says construction of a new bridge is virtually ready to start if the money is available.
Other political leaders have joined in supporting the replacement of the bridge, including Seattle mayoral candidate Mike McGinn.
“Closure of the bridge would eliminate one of the limited crossings of the Duwamish river connecting economically disadvantaged neighborhoods such as Seattle’s South Park neighborhood, White Center, and Boulevard Park to the good paying jobs in the Duwamish Industrial area and downtown Seattle,” McGinn recently wrote to King County Executive Kurt Triplett.
“If elected this November, I look forward to working with King County on the replacement of this critical link in our transportation network,” McGinn wrote.
The Seattle area was virtually left out of allocations from the first round of “TIGER” grants earlier this year.
In addition to many national applications, the South Park Bridge project is competing with an application from Seattle for $50 million for the first phase of Seattle’s $190 million plan to convert one-way Mercer street to a two-way boulevard. That project is locally endangered by candidate McGinn’s solid objection to a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and some City Council candidates who also oppose the Mercer project.
In addition to McGinn, the South Park Bridge project was supported in a letter from Seattle City Council members Nick Licata, Sally Clark and Richard Conlin. The three suggest the closure of the bridge will have an adverse effect on public safety, fire and medic response time in the South Park area: “Response times for backup units supporting Fire Engine 26 in South Park would increase in the event that more than one fire engine is needed, as responding units would need to us the First Avenue South Bridge.” The secondary response comes from Georgetown.
“We love being in South Park,” wrote a group of South Park business owners. “It is affordable to emerging businesses like ours. Without this bridge, many in South Park would be cut off. Please don’t leave South Park behind.”
The bridge has been viewed as in terrible shape for many years and it was made worse by the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake. Its pilings are cracking and crumbling; the works that allow the bridge to be opened four or five times daily – more often on weekends – are to the point it cannot be repaired much longer. A switch panel dates to the construction the bridge in the 1920s and is still in use. The cogs and gears of the mechanism to open the span are so worn they barely operate despite being reground.
If the bridge cannot be opened and closed, it must be removed as mandated by the federal Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899. That law makes it illegal to obstruct any commercial waterway.
The county has a web page with updates on the project and the quest to get funding – you can check it out here.