(Photo by Briana Watts)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“This really, really, really sucks.”
South Park resident Lora Suggs summed up in five words the prevailing mood at tonight’s South Park Bridge draft-closure-plan meeting.
The meeting was supposed to be about explaining the newly released draft plan for helping people get around and helping businesses stay afloat once the deteriorating bridge closes June 30.
But when public-comment time kicked in, it was more like venting – both at the mike and from the audience, demonstrating the community’s indignation that the situation has even come to this.
One woman said she had bought her home in Boulevard Park in 1978, at which time, “I was told the South Park Bridge needed to be retrofitted and replaced. My (child) was 5. He’s 37 now. Why are we sitting here today and why wasn’t this taken care of sooner?”
King County Department of Transportation Director Harold Taniguchi had no easy answer. Besieged repeatedly by audience calls of “how did this happen? why did this happen,” he finally had to say, “We are at where we are at. If we had 32 years to put a funding plan together – we didn’t do it.”
Some community culpability was acknowledged in the middle of a fiery 5-minute speech by Christina Gallegos. Listen to it – as she addresses almost every topic that came up tonight, with clarity as well as fury.
Taniguchi’s response, plus highlights of the draft closure plan – including West Seattle effects – and the search for money for a new bridge, after the jump:
Opening the meeting at the International Association of Machinists Local 751 union hall in South Park, facing a triple-digit crowd, Taniguchi said, “We are here to confirm that (the bridge) is closing.” Though the county does not yet have the final copy of one last assessment of the bridge’s condition, Taniguchi said nothing they’ve heard as a progress report indicates that the bridge is fit to stay open any longer. (The county budget does not include funding for its operation beyond June 30th, so that is the arbitrary date decided for its closure. Even if money to cover the $100 million-plus price tag of the new bridge is assembled this year, the county says it would take about 3 years to build the replacement.)
KCDOT’s Paulette Norman, who led a meeting we covered a month ago with representatives of affected agencies, walked the crowd through highlights of the draft closure plan before the public comment got hot and heavy. The draft plan is now on the county website – you can see it in its entirety here.
Though it promised to address business impacts – South Park business owners fear that the shutdown of the bridge will sever their lifeline to customers from outside their tiny community, especially restaurants that have depended on lunch trade from the Boeing facilities across the Duwamish – those who spoke at the meeting wanted to see more. Instead of loans, one suggested, business owners should get outright grants.
One particularly upset entrepreneur who spoke at the two meetings we covered last month in South Park – (March 9 and March 10) – was there again tonight, 76 station/Subway shop owner Gurdev Singh (photo left). He pointed out the incongruency of the city shutting down major South Park streets for months of road work not that long ago – why couldn’t that have waited until the bridge closed?
Taniguchi acknowledged, as had other county officials at previous meetings, that they did a bad job of letting people know about the June 30th closure plan, once the decision was made. He deflected a question about exactly when that decision was made, but admitted it was “undercommunicated.” In response to Gallegos’ question (as seen in our video clip above) about whether an lessons have been learned, he insisted the county had learned a lesson about effective public communication, and a lesson about how to put together financing plans for this kind of project.
Back to the proposed closure plan itself, which the county says will be honed with the comments made tonight as well as those that come in through other channels, and brought back in final form in a month. Many of those at the meeting were not willing to accept that the closure of the South Park Bridge means no alternative for crossing the Duwamish aside from taking the already-busy 1st Avenue South Bridge.
What about Boeing’s bridge at 102nd? they were asked. While Norman acknowledged it was privately owned but not closed to the public, it also was not mentioned as a factor in the detour plan, and some expressed surprise at that. One attendee suggested that driving to the Spokane Street Swing Bridge – West Seattle’s “low bridge” – would be an acceptable alternative for some who need to cross the Duwamish. Others suggested a foot ferry be set up to at least keep pedestrian traffic flowing across the bridge at South Park, and one person insisted a temporary bridge would be feasible. Taniguchi said they’d “looked into that” but that the federal managers of the waterway apparently would not grant a permit. The temporary-bridge proposer kept mentioning that such bridges were put up in a matter of hours in the MIddle East’s war zones, so should be an easy bet for the Duwamish River. Taniguchi allowed that they would take another look.
Public-safety leaders were asked about the plans in place for them to serve South Park without the bridge. Southwest Precinct Lt. Ron Rasmussen said they weren’t expecting to have many effects, since South Park is served by his precinct, which is on the same side of the river since it’s here in West Seattle.
The Fire Department, however, is another situation, since the Duwamish splits a battalion, and the loss of the bridge means some of the units that respond to major incidents will not be able to cross as quickly. Part of the solution for that, Assistant Chief Bill Hepburn explained, would be the new ladder truck to be based temporarily at Station 11 in Highland Park. Ladder 13 – originally intended as mitigation for the fact that Viaduct work would hamper crews responding from SODO – is to be based at Station 11 starting in May, according to the draft bridge-closure plan. He also said that crews from Station 32 in The Junction might wind up going to South Park more often, and if a situation is really difficult, Airlift Northwest might wind up picking up a patient in South Park to get them quickly to Harborview Medical Center on First Hill.
The closure plan got even more granular, with some planned intersection changes, including a signal at South Cloverdale and 1st Avenue South, southbound on the ramp to Highway 509 – right now, that is controlled only by a stop sign.
Many comments that focused on the plan’s specifics took aim at the reroutes proposed for three Metro routes – 60, 131 and 134. Route 60 is the busiest one to be affected – here’s the map you can see in better detail by downloading the full draft closure plan:
Speakers suggested the county was underestimating how much extra time it would add to have to use the 1st Avenue South Bridge. One suggested that the wrong routes were under consideration, proposing that the 128 should be routed to serve South Park.
Getting people to drive to South Park, even if they could not so easily drive through, was the focus of the plan’s section dealing with helping businesses cope. The plan suggested that ideas be pursued such as marketing South Park as a “unique destination,” trying to get major businesses to arrange for catering so that South Park restaurants could deliver lunch to the people who used to simply walk or drive across the bridge that’ll soon be out of commission, putting directional/informational signs along area roads.
Signage was discussed several times during the night – Paulina Lopez pleaded with the county to make sure that signs about the impending closure, some of which are apparently going up tomorrow, are in more than just English, considering the fact there are so many speakers of other languages in the area.
But the main interest seemed to be, how they would get money for a new bridge, and even whether the search for that money would remain a priority once the current one closes. Taniguchi went through a long and relatively complex list of some possibilities – mentioning along the way that a Transportation Benefit District could impose a $20 license-plate fee to raise some money, and saying a sales-tax increase could be another possibility. He also noted that $18 million trumpeted by the Puget Sound Regional Council about a month ago can’t be counted on just yet because it’s reportedly stalled in legislation in the U.S. Senate.
Taniguchi also sought to point out that at least the design and property acquisition for the bridge were funded, “so we are ready to go (when full funding is found).”
Skepticism permeated some people’s comments, though: One man said flat-out he doesn’t believe the bridge is dangerous. Another one said, “If the (Alaskan Way) Viaduct is an emergency, why is it still open?” when the South Park Bridge is scheduled to imminently close. There was also bitterness – lingering bitterness over the downtown project (“Mercer Mess”) that got federal funding in the same round during which the South Park Bridge was denied, and bitterness over other projects in which people in the area feel they got all of the trouble and none of the benefit – one man talked about the 11th Legislative District being bisected by light rail, without having a stop to use to access it.
And gas-station owner Singh voiced a bitter complaint he offered at one of the March meetings – that he pays plenty of taxes on his business, including hefty gas taxes, and yet when his community needs the government to build something, the money can’t be found: “If they are using (the money) right, this bridge won’t be the problem!”
He also didn’t feel the government is moving fast enough: “They just stand there and say ‘we are planning’ – yes, planning to close the South Park Bridge and not survive, anybody! … You guys are going to shut that bridge and walk away!”
KCDOT’s Taniguchi insisted, “This is different from before – we have a new County Executive, and Dow (Constantine) is making this a priority.”
Someone called from the audience, “It wasn’t his priority (as a county council member representing the district), why is it now?” (Current District 8 County Councilmember Jan Drago was at the meeting for a while, but didn’t stay till the end, and did not address the crowd. Another speaker expressed pointed disappointment at the absence of any elected officials – Drago was appointed to the job – particularly Seattle City Councilmembers.)
And another audience member demanded to know what the government officials would do to help Singh “keep his business.” No easy answer forthcoming, a man called out to the business owner, “Let me summarize … you’re screwed.”
Singh was still at the mike. “Nothing is unfixable in this world. Everything can be fixed. This bridge CAN be made safe for the public from the money you guys have put away.”
The county contends that’s not so, that there is no way to fix it and extend its life. But still, “Why can’t you leave it open?” a woman shouted out. A man in the front row turned and said, “It’s falling apart.” The woman retorted, “I don’t care, so’s the (Alaskan Way) Viaduct, but it’s still open.”
In the end, there was just one consensus, the words used by a city rep: “This is a crisis.” And two months remain for South Park and those who govern it to figure out how those who depend on the bridge will survive its shutdown.
What’s next: Another “all-agency coordination meeting” – like this one on March 24 – is set for May 11. Two weeks after that, the final closure plan is to be presented at a May 25 meeting (again at 6 pm at the Machinist Union Hall), and the county says a mailer about that meeting will go to “all households in the South Park, White Center, Boulevard Park and Georgetown areas. As for the funding search, there are key dates coming up in summer and fall.