VIDEO: ‘Complicated and expensive problem,’ city councilmembers told in presentation of bridges audit

(Seattle Channel video of Wednesday morning’s committee meeting)

When the City Auditor’s Office presented its audit of Seattle bridges to the City Council’s Transportation and Utilities Committee today, one thing was clarified right off the start:

“Our audit was not an investigation into the specifics of (the West Seattle Bridge closure),” stressed deputy auditor Sean DeBlieck. It was, though, a result of the sudden closure almost 6 months ago – soon afterward, committee chair Alex Pedersen called for it. We reported on the audit when it was made public Monday, in advance of today’s presentation. Here’s the slide deck they used:

Continuing the presentation, assistant auditor Jane Dunkel noted that while the report mentions 77 city-owned bridges, SDOT cites 124, because its count includes pedestrian bridges and co-owned structures.

No West Seattle bridges were in the “poor” category in SDOT’s most recent inspection ratings. But as Councilmember Lisa Herbold pointed out, pre-closure, the West Seattle Bridge was rated “fair,” so some of those bridges may have repair needs long before getting into the “poor” category.

A key point of the audit, as mentioned in Monday coverage – SDOT has averaged $6 million on bridge maintenance annually over the past 14 years, but should be spending $34 million to $100 million a year. (It should be noted that this was not an audit of SDOT’s budget in general, so auditors weren’t necessarily saying the agency needs more money, just that it should be spending more on bridge maintenance.)

The report’s 10 findings included that SDOT could be out of federal compliance, as suggested in an “informal” state/federal review last year (at SDOT’s invitation), which could cost the city dearly if it’s found ineligible to compete for federal grants, such as the ones that might factor into West Seattle Bridge repair or replacement funding.

Other recommendations included that SDOT should spend less time doing “reimbursable work” for others and should spend less time maintaining private bridges. SDOT deputy director Lorelei Williams noted that the department does not agree with the recommendation to cut back on reimbursable work, as, she said, it allows them to afford more staff. “Sustainable, scalable sources of revenue” are overall a big challenge for the department. Yet even if they had all the money more bridge maintenance would cost, she said, scaling up staff would take a while.

Williams also repeated a point SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe made in his written response to the audit, that SDOT does not believe the West Seattle Bridge problems resulted from any deficiencies in its maintenance program. She also mentioned that SDOT set aside Roadway Structures – which includes bridges – as its own division just last year. Its acting director Matt Donahue also participated in the meeting; Herbold asked him for clarification on the new load rating that the city has to do for its bridges because of new classifications of vehicles approved by the feds; the re-rating was ordered in 2015, to be completed by 2022.

Bottom line, the maintenance backlog and funding gap – identified as a nationwide challenge – was summarized as a “complicated and expensive problem.” Auditor Jones told councilmembers that this report isn’t a one-time check-in with SDOT – they’ll check with the department each year to see how the implementation of recommendations is going.

5 Replies to "VIDEO: 'Complicated and expensive problem,' city councilmembers told in presentation of bridges audit"

  • Matt September 17, 2020 (9:48 am)

    This just doesn’t come a surprise to me.  Government infrastructure projects are so overly inflated compared to the private sector, no wonder there is a huge budget issue.  Exhibit A: no roundabout should cost 7 million dollars.  

  • Erithan September 17, 2020 (10:41 am)

    Weren’t there reports from inspections from at least 2014(I forget which inspection had notes on it) mentioning the need for reinforcements? Which would prove negligence? 

  • N September 17, 2020 (12:08 pm)

    Maintaining infrastructure isn’t high the list for most local governments but this is quite a backlog – spent $6M a year over the last 14 when the audit says they need to spend a Minimum of $34M a year.  That’s nearly a $400M – $1.3B backlog of deferred maintenance from the past 14 years.  Sure would be great if they would just plug in that minimum of $34M in the budget going forward.

  • Heartless? September 17, 2020 (2:29 pm)

    This city has a big problem with it’s overall budget, ie  “wants” vs. “needs”. A very common problem, not just for governments, but for anyone working on any kind of budget. I’ve struggled with it for years. I’d bet most of us have.Where am I going with this?  Tiny homes, or bridges?  All day preschool, or bridges? Promise scholarships, or bridges?  Figure it out people. It’s all about priorities and realities.

  • 1994 September 17, 2020 (8:27 pm)

    A general audit of SDOT budget needs to be done. If the SDOT is not utilizing the taxpayer funds in a manner to maintain the city infrastructure and transportation, then the SDOT needs some additional scrutiny and a critical look at their management decisions. An outside audit could only be beneficial….

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