Fury, fear, frustration, fighting spirit as South Park faces bridge loss

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.

37 Replies to "Fury, fear, frustration, fighting spirit as South Park faces bridge loss"

  • M. March 9, 2010 (10:47 pm)

    Any news on the fatal crash on 16th ave sw??

    • WSB March 9, 2010 (11:07 pm)

      Yes, we have a story up. Police have not confirmed to us that it was fatal, though all signs point to that so far; I’m working on official confirmation.

  • chas redmond March 9, 2010 (11:33 pm)

    And, if the city isn’t smart and doesn’t begin working towards a solution, the same thing may our could happen to the Magnolia Bridge as what’s being threatened to the South Park Bridge. I know it’s outrageous, but couldn’t we use tolls to produce a guaranteed revenue stream for a bond issuance and then when we pay the bond off make the bridge free? Surely we’re not so derelict as to just close off parts of the city and deny passage to both passenger and freight communities.

  • Forest March 10, 2010 (12:27 am)

    So, I see where Jan Drago sent a representative to the meeting instead of attending it herself. Has she made even one public appearance in South Park or West Seattle since January when she was appointed (not elected) to represent this greater district on the King County Council?

    • WSB March 10, 2010 (1:02 am)

      Drago actually spoke about the South Park Bridge in person at last Thursday’s North Highline Unincorporated Area Council meeting (which we covered for White Center Now, though the main focus of the meeting was prospective Seattle annexation, which drew a turnout as room-packing as the one in South Park tonight).

      I have yet to finish this story but will be mentioning that there is another meeting in South Park tomorrow, one a little more grass-roots than tonight. I would not be surprised to see more electeds at that one. Maybe even TV, which sure missed the boat on a barnburner (to mix metaphors).

      CM Drago also did a walking tour of White Center a couple weeks ago. We would have covered it if we’d had advance notice – only heard about it because Justin at Full Tilt tweeted about the sighting.

  • dsa March 10, 2010 (12:46 am)

    Why email Bagshaw? She’s Parks and Seattle Center chair. And for her to beg off because she’s only received five emails is ridiculous. Her representatives response should have been that she is in the process seeking alternative funding sources with those who are responsible for doing so.

    Here’s what is needed, an executive emergency stakeholders committee comprised by selected state, county, city port officials and maybe a community member or two. The state is involved because if this bridge is lost the First ave bridge would receive a good bump in traffic, I’m guessing about 20% increase.

    This committee would seek out the best people in out region who have had the most success at obtaining federal funding for this specialized submission.

    End of my fantasy. Politics don’t work that way.

  • ivan March 10, 2010 (6:03 am)

    The record is clear and unequivocal that Dow Constantine and Greg Nickels fought like tigers to pass the 2007 RTID measure, which would have funded rebuilding of the South Park Bridge, and that Mike McGinn and Mike O’Brien were instrumental in killing it.

  • CB March 10, 2010 (6:59 am)

    Where’s the Mayor? Oh wait, he’s against ANY transportation projects or infrastructure improvements.

    Dear Mr Mayor, the City of Seattle extends beyond Capitol Hill. Time for you to get a map and serve the entire city and not your pals at the Sierra Club.

  • Joe March 10, 2010 (7:11 am)

    So in the mean time, people will have to take the 1st Ave S bridge to get across the river at the north, or the one around 102nd in the south, right? Obviously that adds some time/distance to any trip, but is it really that difficult? If you’re heading from South Park to Georgetown, does it really affect you very much?

    I don’t mean to sound dismissive of the community’s concerns, I’m just trying to understand the actual impact of losing the bridge. What kinds of travel will be significantly impacted?

  • MargL March 10, 2010 (7:43 am)

    Too bad Boeing isn’t headquartered across the bridge anymore. If they were you could be darn sure they would have made sure funding to fix/replace the bridge was pushed thru!

  • old timer March 10, 2010 (8:04 am)

    Oh, for the days and the likes of Jeanette Williams, Scoop, and Maggie.
    Today’s ‘politicians’ are pale imitations.

  • sam March 10, 2010 (8:25 am)

    Dow wasn’t there in person ? I find that disappointing

  • k March 10, 2010 (8:33 am)

    So true old timer, so true.

    My kids attend school in SP and we cross that bridge every day twice.
    I also think that Boeing should AT LEAST be able to help with the lobbying efforts, even if they aren’t willing to donate any money to the effort. They have people who can call the Governor and County council people and get them on the line.
    They also have trucks CONSTANTLY crossing that bridge. They could endear themselves to the city a little by helping out here.

  • JoB March 10, 2010 (8:42 am)

    I find this whole thing worse than disappointing… Closing that bridge would put 5000 trucks a day either onto I-5 or the city streets…

    and would cut off the alternate route from West Seattle to downtown when the next phase of work shuts off access from the West Seattle Bridge.

    This is more of Seattle/King Country political posturing… a process of counting coup that shuts down every public works project.

    Perhaps they are simply waiting for the big one to hit so they can rebuild from scratch.. like New Orleans…

    if so.. we are in trouble. you don’t want to know how that one is working out for the residents.

  • sophista-tiki March 10, 2010 (8:45 am)

    UM>>>> I skimmed the comments and didn’t see a refrence to this point. BUT… if they cut off WS on the viaduct side for the tunnel issue, then they close the South Park Bridge, how the hell are we supposed to get out of the neighborhood ? Forcing drivers to get on the freeways is just going to cause alot of congestion and wasted time driving around to get back to where you need to be.

  • md March 10, 2010 (8:48 am)

    This is so distressing. These people were never given a chance. It will affect everything including their home values. I find it really sad that we can’t afford to take care of our own infrastructure. The only good thing I can see is the strong community that South Park has. They will pull together even stronger.

  • Gurldoggie March 10, 2010 (9:56 am)

    Thanks for writing up this meeting. For me the most frustrating part of the meeting was to learn that there is NO PLAN to deal with the bridge or with any of the fallout from closing it. A very telling point came when a woman asked “Are there any plans for the altered bus routes?” and the answer came back “we have talking about speaking about that…” No bridge, no money, no plan, no nothing. What a mess.

  • Joe March 10, 2010 (10:08 am)

    sophista-tiki: The 1st Ave S Bridge?

  • 11thHourMiracles March 10, 2010 (10:38 am)

    The South Park neighborhood has the dump.

    This is exactly how most of the city views the area: the dump zone.

    Zero respect.

    Nobody cared enough to work collaboratively to get those ducks in a row. THAT’s why it has come to this.

  • flynlo March 10, 2010 (10:38 am)

    In a previous article WSB documented how the city has 146 bridges, 46 of them more than 60 years old. The article also stated that the city inspects them routinely following federal standards.

    The federal standards categorize bridges in many ways, among them, whether or not they are “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete”.
    It is interesting that the city offers NO information (that I can find) on said status of any of its bridges.

    EVERY politician – city, county, port and state should place themselves on public record regarding why and how they believe that the beautification of Mercer street is more important than “structurally deficient bridges. Our elected representatives at the federal level should place themselves on record on why the Mercer beautification project ranks ahead of “functionally obselete” bridges! They should also place themselves on public record regarding all of the lobbyists and local politicians with whom they interacted regarding federal stimulus money for said project.
    Of course, we know at least one answer to some of these questions – that is, Vulcan doesn’t really care about the South Park bridge or the Magnolia bridge or …

  • ironsides March 10, 2010 (12:51 pm)

    Fire them! Fire the politicians who have been running our infrastructure into the ground for 20+ years. Stop voting for the same people over and over again just because they happen to be democrats!

  • Liz March 10, 2010 (1:44 pm)

    This situation is appalling. I live in White Center and, in case you don’t know, Seattle is considering putting annexation of White Center and the rest of North Highline on the November ballot. It will be a vote by the people of North Highline. Seattle residents will have no opportunity to vote for or against it.

    A small, but very vocal group of Seattle annexation proponents from North Highline keeps saying that we’ll get “more” and “better” services if we annex to Seattle. South Park is our neighbor to the east. It had to wait nearly 100 years for a library and now it’s going to lose it’s bridge. What kind of service is that?

    If you think I’m wrong and should be supporting annexation to Seattle, please tell me:

    1) Why White Center would get more respect, concern or investment from Seattle than South Park or any of Seattle’s struggling neighborhoods?

    2) How many Seattle tax dollars have already been spent trying to woo White Center?

    3) How much more money will Seattle spend before the Seattle City Council votes on whether to put annexation on the November ballot?

    4) Why those tax dollars would not be better spent on a bridge and mitigating the disaster facing South Park?

    If you are a Seattle resident and you agree that Seattle annexation is a bad idea, why aren’t you telling Mayor McGinn and the Seattle City Council to focus on you instead of us?

  • Brad March 10, 2010 (1:55 pm)

    Has anyone spoke about how bad this will be for the Fire Dept, aid cars and all the services that run in that realm! I am so disgusted that this was shelved so many times and now reaching a critical level and most likley its demise….so sad

  • geoff belau March 10, 2010 (2:20 pm)

    There were some constructive comments that came out in last night’s meeting, many legitimate concerns, and a lot of scatter-shot venting from folks who have been silent until confronted with the long predicted closure. True, the assumption was that the existing bridge would stay in service until construction of the new one was complete – the change in plans is a big bummer -, but the 2010 projected closure date has been out there for some time now. Failure to secure funding has not been for lack of trying. Ron Simms didn’t do us any favors, nor did Greg Nickels when he was mayor, nor did McGinn before he was mayor. But there is plenty of blame to go around, including those in our community (and surrounding communities) – newcomers as well as old-timers – who only now are coming forward to voice concern. Now is not the time to blame King County. I’ve been involved with this project for 8 years now as a resident and business owner, and all along the way (with the HUGE exception of Ron Simms flip-flop on the RTID) KCDOT has worked with the community in good faith to find a solution to the problem, jump through all the required regulatory hoops, and lobby for funding. There have been multiple chances for input and several public meetings devoted to the project. Dow Constantine has always been an advocate for the bridge – first as County Council member, now as Executive. If we are looking for someone to blame, we need look no further than our own doorsteps. Who is responsible for the regressive tax structure of our state that leaves no money for projects such as these? Why are we put in a position of “competing” with other infrastructure projects that may or may not be worthy in their own right? This day has been coming for a long time, and we are only just now waking up to it. The unfortunate thing is that so much energy is being put into finding a scapegoat while so (relatively) little effort is put into finding constructive solutions. Whether or not you’ve ever sent a letter to your elected officials, NOW is the time to do it – for the first time or for the 100th time. ALL your elected officials. (Yes, even Sally Bagshaw.) Let your voices be heard, and let’s work together as a community and region to make sure our elected officials know that we need this bridge.

  • Paul G March 10, 2010 (2:36 pm)

    Well, it seems the I-man tax cutting, infrastructure destroying initiatives are certainly coming home to roost. Nobody should be surprised to see stuff like this starting to happen. We all voted down the measure that would have funded this (remember the roads and transit measure?). We have voted to hamstring our governments to be able to fund basics needs and services. So quit complaining – we are reaping exactly what we have sowed.

    • WSB March 10, 2010 (2:53 pm)

      Note for those interested enough in this topic to comment (thank you!) – I have been lamenting on Twitter today that as far as I can tell, there were no other journalists covering the meeting last night. Perhaps tonight will be different (we’ll be there again). Meantime, I did learn that Sustainable Seattle had a rep in attendance and they wrote a post about it:

  • geoff belau March 10, 2010 (3:34 pm)

    Thank you, WSB, for covering this issue. We’ve been trying for years to get press from the “majors”, with minimal success. I suppose the Times and the PI and the TV stations are more concerned about their own personal driveway, also known as Mercer Street.

  • WSB March 10, 2010 (3:43 pm)

    I worked in “the majors” a long time and honestly last night’s meeting would have been a hell of a TV story, so I’m not sure why it got skipped. But the county did NOT send out news releases, they acknowledged to me — and I wouldn’t have known about any meetings if not for a small box alongside the Times story last week, which sent me on a research trail. We are informal partners with the Times, by the way, and they do currently have this story linked directly from their home page (under “local”).

  • ckr March 10, 2010 (4:09 pm)

    When did South Park become a part of West Seattle ( West Seattle Blog )?

    • WSB March 10, 2010 (4:24 pm)

      We cover as much as we can of whatever affects WS/White Center, and this unquestionably does.

  • Pam March 10, 2010 (4:17 pm)

    This is sad, what is our Mayor doing? I have not seen much, maybe he should stand up and start supporting our entire city, even OUR neighborhoods like South Park.

  • sophista-tiki March 10, 2010 (4:36 pm)

    Joe, I suppose the 1st Ave S Bridge would work for most.

  • k March 10, 2010 (9:54 pm)

    Joe– it would also increase travel times on the 1st Ave. S Bridge immensely by adding all of the truck traffic, along with the cars.

  • Wbn March 10, 2010 (9:55 pm)

    richard.conlin@seattle.gov, sally.bagshaw@seattle.gov, tim.burgess@seattle.gov, sally.clark@seattle.gov, jean.godden@seattle.gov, nick.licata@seattle.gov, mike.obrien@seattle.gov, tom.rasmussen@seattle.gov

    here are the city council members email addresses for your convenience. I also left a note in the mayors customer service bureau.

  • d March 10, 2010 (9:59 pm)

    Joe –

    Plus, when the ramp work is being done later in the spring/summer on the bridge, THAT rerouted traffic will be going down 1st Ave. So. to W. Marginal Highland Park Way and Roxbury.

    It is going to be a world class MESS!

  • Mike Raybell March 12, 2010 (3:51 pm)

    Perhaps we should ask why we need a bridge that opens to begin with. Maybe there is a way to purchase or trade land down stream for the two morage sights and the Delta marine facility to resolve the issue of having a mechanical bridge.I would think that would cut the costs and no real need to elevate the structure which would make it safer and nicer looking and take up less space.

  • Mike Raybell March 12, 2010 (4:16 pm)

    By relocating up river usage the existing stucture could possibly be refitted to remain down and still have access for smaller craft.Delta may even be able to construct tall features on their craft down river,seems to me so many are putting out so much for so few.I wonder if the people who need the bridge to open pay a fee.

Sorry, comment time is over.