(Seattle Channel video from meeting- bridge briefing starts 14 minutes in)
9:33 AM: Click into the
live Seattle Channel stream above for the City Council‘s weekly “briefing” meeting, featuring an SDOT presentation on the decision a week ago to close the high-rise West Seattle Bridge after “exponential” growth in cracks they had been monitoring for seven years, and what happens next. As previewed Friday, here’s the slide deck prepared for the meeting:
(Or see it here in PDF.) If you can’t access the SC feed, you should be able to listen in at 206-684-8566. We’ll be chronicling as it happens, too.
9:46 AM: After Council President Lorena González‘s weekly update, the bridge briefing has begun. District 1 Councilmember Lisa Herbold opens by mentioning that there’s “universal support” for the fastest action possible, as for West Seattle this is a “second emergency” layered on the pandemic emergency. Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who chairs the Transportation Committee, notes a resolution is set for this afternoon’s meeting designating this as an urgent capital project. Then SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe starts the briefing. He’s joined by other SDOT employees – all in separate locations.
He reiterates that the bridge had been inspected previously more often than required, adding that the bridge was built to last 75 years. He says there was no indication until recent weeks/months that anything impeding the bridge’s use was going on. “All of our infrastructure ages – usually it does so in a predictable manner … with very few surprises,” although there have been exceptions such as the Argo Bridge (4th Ave. S.) and Aurora Bridge. “For reasons that we don’t yet know,” the bridge became so dangerous it had to be closed, he says. “We needed to take this action swiftly and decisively.”
SDOT’s bridge manager Matt Donahue picks up from there. He gives some background on the bridge, opened in 1984. “Reinforced concrete bridges are … made to crack,” he notes. Bridges like this are supposed to be inspected every two years. After atypical cracking was first noticed in 2013, they hired an engineering firm. 2014-2019, they inspected annually and looked at “crack width data” – the cracking “continued to grow but not at an alarming rate,” 1/1000th inch or less. Then in 2019 came the load-rating inspection required by new federal guidelines that they had until 2022 to do, but because of the cracks, they moved the load-rating inspection up to 2019. “Two things happened – we’re doing this advanced analysis …and continuing to inspect the bridge … gathering more data …” so they built two models to analyze. While gathering data for that, they saw the cracking patterns start to change. In late February, their consultant recommended going down to two lanes in each direction. They were working on a plan for that when on March 19th, the consultant said the bridge should be closed. So they analyzed that over a weekend, went up to the bridge at 9 am last Monday, and the photo shows “what they saw when we got up there.”
10:07 AM: Councilmember Herbold says there should have been public/council notice when they moved to monthly inspections. Zimbabwe counters that they didn’t think until “very very recently” that repairs would disrupt “normal traffic patterns.” CP González (also a West Seattleite) asks for further clarification on that two-lane recommendation. February 21st, responds Zimbabwe. But it didn’t seem to be something that needed to be done immediately. Nonetheless, as she noted, that was a month before this, and there was no hint to the public or council that anything was amiss. She and Herbold express disappointment. Zimbabwe says the recommendation for closure was made March 19th, and then they confirmed March 23rd that it was needed. He acknowledges there could have been some discussion in the weeks ahead but says again there was no indication “such swift action” would have been needed.
Donahue resumes his part of the briefing, pointing to the cracking growth and saying that the kind of growth he saw last Monday was the kind you see in years, not days and weeks, “completely unacceptable. … Failure happens quickly and without warning” in this type of situation. Regarding repairs: They hope to fix it while some traffic is allowed on the bridge, and they will continue to inspect the cracks, in hopes the bridge can “at least handle its own dead weight” for now.
Councilmember Tammy Morales expresses concern about whether there’s a “chance the upper bridge could collapse at any moment” – Donahue says they don’t think so.
Counclmember Pedersen “echoes” the notification concerns and saying they needed to know – even that lane closures were being planned.
Councilmember Herbold asks for more details on repair options. SDOT reiterates that they are working on a “design-build” process to accelerate. Donahue says they are gathering data on how the bridge is handling the stress and strain and that has to be known first. Zimbabwe says, “We’re looking for any possible way to restore any amount of traffic” but they have to be certain it would be safe. Herbold says she wasn’t suggesting a rush but just wants to be sure this is treated as an “emergency.”
Back to Donahue, who now moves on to the “low bridge” slide. Parts of it are getting weekly inspections; a load-rating project started recently for this bridge too. The pedestrian gates will be fixed next month.
10:28 AM: Adiam Emery now takes over to address the “traffic management plan.” 20,000 vehicles is the maximum the low bridge could handle, which would be stop-and-go, so to be sure emergency vehicles can get through, they’re limiting other traffic to transit and freight. She mentions the Highland Park Way signal, and “traffic-count stations” to watch the situation elsewhere. How frequently will they be monitored and what info will be shared? Herbold asks. She also asks about low-bridge access for health-care workers and first responders to get to work. Emery says 15,000 vehicles took the low bridge last Tuesday, the first full day of the closure, but they aren’t ready to reconsider the restrictions yet. She says the traffic counts are being used to tweak signal timing and other things “on a daily basis.” Zimbabwe adds that “right now we’re in an extraordinary (low) traffic period” so they know things will change. “This is not a short-term issue.” (But, it should be noted, there’s still been no hint in the briefing of HOW LONG the repairs will take.) Emery says many more strategies will be required to manage the future traffic and a task force, also involving Metro and the port, is looking at that.
Back to Donahue for repair options. First the temporary shoring “to make it safe” for a contractor to even do more repairs – “carbon fiber wrapping” coated with an epoxy shell is likely what they’ll use for starters, also more steel reinforcement. They have to be careful in the design that the repairs don’t affect bridge clearance on the waterway, which could trigger a need for Coast Guard permits, which would add more time.
Enforcing low-bridge restrictions? Herbold follows up. Zimbabwe mentions the signage. “Our general approach to enforcement of all our traffic rules is to have people follow the rules (and for us to) have as light an enforcement touch as possible,” but that could change … “if everybody tries to use the lower-level bridge, then nobody will be able to use the lower-level bridge.”
Councilmember Mosqueda asks about worker safety regarding COVID-19 exposure on repair crews. Zimbabwe says they have implemented safety plans for all their projects But working inside the bridge is a close space so that’s a challenge.
10:48 AM: Councilmember González stresses the importance of getting information out in multiple languages since West Seattle/South Park is “incredibly diverse” in terms of languages spoken. She also puts in a plug for WSB. “The West Seattle Blog is critical for anything that happens in West Seattle,” agrees Zimbabwe. He then gets to the org chart, with (another West Seattleite) Heather Marx coordinating the project, Dan Anderson as lead communicator – he’s had that role for several major local projects – among others (see the slide).
Re: next steps, Herbold asks about funding needed. Zimbabwe says “Yes, there will be budget impacts,” but they don’t know enough yet about the shoring and repair options – “we expect that’ll be over the next few weeks” – to address cost. “Beyond where we are with shoring and repair, we also recognize” they have to talk about the bridge’s future – “not our immediate priority” though.
González asks about timelines: Zimbabwe says they don’t know. “It’s not going to be a short duration and I don’t want to gve the impression this is something we can handle in the next few weeks …I think it’ll outlast the public health emergency we’re in now. … I am very reluctant to speculate on (timelines) … any range I give would likely have problems.”
On followup he says they’ll know “over the next month or so … what we need to do.” So basically – this s our interpretation – plan on months.
11:03 AM: The briefing has concluded (running twice as long as originally expected). TOPLINES:
-They don’t know what caused the cracks to worsen
-They knew a month ago that they had worsened to a point where lane reduction was advised
-They don’t know how long it’ll take even for short-term repairs – it’ll take up to a month before they know.
We’ll get the archived video up as soon as possible (we recorded the briefing too in case the Seattle Channel turnaround takes longer).
1:35 PM: Video added. Advance the Seattle Channel recording to 14 minutes in to get to the start.