By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Two headlines emerged as the West Seattle Bridge Community Task Force gathered online this afternoon for a between-meetings discussion:
First, the expectation that Mayor Jenny Durkan would announce a “repair or replace?” decision at next Wednesday’s CTF meeting is no longer the plan – the final Cost-Benefit Analysis won’t even be ready for the CTF to look at until Monday, so they’ll be discussing it next week rather than making, or hearing, a recommendation.
More about that, the CTF was told, will be presented at next week’s meeting. Today was not meant to be a time for presentations, but more an hour and a half of temperature-taking. As co-chair Paulina Lopez explained, they wanted to spend more time “to hear from each other.”
Ahead, how that unfolded:
“This has been a very lengthy process,” acknowledged co-chair Greg Nickels in thanking the CTF members for their time commitment. “We heard loud and clear from you that you don’t feel you got enough information to make informed recommendations to the mayor.”
The co-chairs asked for the 80-page CBA document by week’s end but were told Monday was more realistic, and that’s what’s pushing back the timeline.
Before their discussion, they heard briefly from SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe, one of several SDOT staffers in attendance.
He acknowledged the “stress and agony of the decision point next week” without full information – they’ll “keep going on all pathways” but will “move that decision point a little bit farther.” Replacement contractor HNTB has brought up some concepts, he added, “ways that we might be able to change the dynamic we’re talking about when we talk about replacement” – shorter than the five or six-year replacement timeline that’s been discussed. The CBA won’t be updated but this newly added concept will be discussed at the October 21st meeting. The CBA isn’t final yet because it was reviewed by the TAP yesterday and is being made accessible before being released to all.
After that, the discussion proceeded with two minutes for each task force member, mostly in alphabetical order.
Charlie Able noted that last week’s information hinted at a multi-year closure, and wanted to know more about why a replacement couldn’t be built next to the existing bridge so that repair AND replace could happen simultaneously. Also, would a replacement require a full-scale EIS if it did happen on the same pathway?
Dan Austin from the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce expressed frustration that “11 meetings in and we’re just hearing about a new building option, new technology … I don’t like making major decisions on anything with just three days’ heads-up. At this point, if we ere asked to make a recommendation, I would feel completely uncomfortable.” But no matter what, ‘six years is completely unacceptable to get reconnected.” He also wanted to know why SDOT’s 15-to-40-year time frame for repairs lasting has recently morphed in at least one interview to possibly just a few years.
Deb Barker from the West Seattle Transportation Coalition and Morgan Community Association noted that she had advocated from the very start for this to be treated as an emergency. “Even though the mayor declared it an emergency in July, there’s no perceived urgency in getting this done.” She said non-West Seattleites are still voicing a lack of awareness that the bridge is still closed. She offered the West Marginal Way plan as something that’s not being treated with enough urgency. She initially supported a new bridge but felt that everything presented last week “was so slanted to a replacement that it made me uncomfortable.” She says the cost to “everyday people” needs to be factored in.
Ken Bowden from Nucor said he voiced concerns similar to those already voiced – while also appreciating that “this is a complex situation.” and he said he’s been pleasantly surprised at SDOT’s work with the Task Force.
Todd Carden from Elliott Bay Brewing said he agreed that information to date had been slanted “in a particular direction” but also felt frustration that he learned about some things “outside of these meetings.” He stressed that the bridge closure “is having a huge impact on the community” and needs to be addressed fast while also looking at a “long-range solution.” He said it’s getting harder and harder to navigate the current pathways.
Marci Carpenter from the Washington Federation for the Blind said she hears a lot of concern from people who want to get the bridge open again as soon as possible but also don’t want to kick the ball down the road for a longterm solution.. She also wants to hear more about the 1st Avenue South Bridge repair-needs solution. And she said accessibility is vital for all the ways in which this information is presented.
Katie Garrow from MLK Labor Council said the labor community is unofficially leaning toward “full-bridge replacement” but a desire to “move swiftly.” She said the evidence for repairing hasn’t been compelling enough to push them that way, yet.
Erin Goodman from SODO said she was “really struck as I watch this process of the strong need to reconnect West Seattle quickly, but I’m also concerned about the concept of kicking this down the road … I’m concerned about waiting for Sound Transit (because for example) there will be delays … I’m looking at what will give us the most amount of certainty … the option that will get us the most stable for the longest period of time … either the partial replacement or total replacement at this time.”
Peter Goldman likened it to buying a used car when he was a teenager and having to keep putting money into it The analogy to a used car vs. new car ..”maybe we should not throw good money after bad and get on with a long–term solution.” He said he’s glad they’ll get all the info from SDOT because they can’t make a decision without it. Sound Transit is going to be a game-changer and he would like the city to push them to move quicker … “it makes no sense to spend a few hundred million if we have something that could be game-changing right now.” Long term, he wants to see them stop being in “silos” and see a focus on light rail.
City Councilmember Lisa Herbold spoke next. She said she appreciated Goldman’s used-car analogy. She also acknowledged how everyone is being affected, and the scheduling/permitting risks are “very elemental to this situation.” She said a constituent brought up the issue of the 1914 rail bridge over the Ship Canal, which will be repaired, while two years ago the railroad announced a reconstruction … her office heard that the Coast Guard might have asked for higher clearance … “I believe that is caution for us to be sure that the risk we’re assuming for Coast Guard delays have to be fully (evaluated)” and urged SDOT to talk to BNSF. She also said she’s received 6,700 poll responses to her “repair or replace” survey and she’ll be sharing the results in the next 24 hours. She said that she was worried the repair option was getting “short shrift” so far so is glad the CBA info will be available. She has questions including operation and maintenance and whether any part of the bridge “beyond the crack zone” is showing problems. Her other concerns include how long it would take to fix the bridge and if a potential repair is already designed (since that part of the process was supposed to be under way).
Anne Higuera of Ventana Construction (WSB sponsor) had sent written questions earlier and said one reply had raised further questions, “the lack of economic impact data being applied to all options.” The reply, she said, was that it was hard to separate the impact of bridge closure from the impact of COVID. She also noted that the previous bridge replacement took six years – 1978 to 1984 – and said research could and should be done on those economic effects. She said she recalled empty storefronts in West Seattle when she first arrived in 1999. “I’m afraid of what’s going to happen if it (takes six years) to restore that. path ..” two years would be hard, “six years would be awful.”
Tim McConnell of West Seattle Runner (WSB sponsor) said he’s approaching it “pragmatically.” he likened the current status to being a juror being asked to render a verdict without al the information – right now, he said, he is leaning toward a repair while designing a replacement, “unless something pops up that’s a better option.”
County Councilmember Joe McDermott said what’s key for him is the total time that the bridge – connection – would be down. He doesn’t see “repair only” as an option. So he’s evaluating “how much time does West Seattle have to be (unconnected)?”
Nickels mentioned that the last closure included a drawbridge still being functional, and West Seattle having far fewer people.- so while there’s anecdotal information, it may not be totally applicable.
Rachel Smith from County Executive Dow Constantine‘s office said they’re leaning toward replacement – “the notion of longevity and the lower maintenance cots, the ability to bring creative solutions to bear, potentially greater ability to put together a funding package for a new structure, and the general confidence level we’d have in a new structure.” She said Constantine, who is on the ST board, also agrees that synergy is vital.
Yazmin Mehdi from U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal‘s office noted that Jayapal is a West Seattleite too – she’s mostly there to listen and help facilitate. “One thing that concerns me a little bit is an idea of a hybrid option, repair and replace, in terms of bringing federal funding …” she’s not sure how that woudl work, although if the group recommends it, they’ll find a way. Also: “The concerns seem to edge on how long will it take to get a connection back,” so they need to know if there’s a way that replacement would be closer in timeline to repair.
City Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who chairs the Transportation and Utilities Committee, said the goals of safety and speed are in conflict – but he’s very hopeful that other governments will contribute “for what is really a statewide bridge.”
John Persak, who represents Georgetown and the maritime trades, said he wanted to “call out the fact that we are talking about putting a substantial amount of money into a failing asset …” characterizing the decision as “pay me now or pay me later.” He said that money put into that “failing asset” could be better spent investing in neighborhoods and transit. Regarding building a new bridge, materials and labor are “only going to get more expensive as time goes by. … we don’t want to wind up in a situation with costs that cannot be mitigated.”
State House Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon said “repair feels to me more feasible than (it seemed) when we began these meetings …. I do worry about the impacts on the West Seattle community. of not having this corridor open until 2026.” He also worried about even meeting that timeline in terms of “assembling a financing package.” So he’s leaning toward repair as “being marginally less painful.”
West Seattle Bridge NOW‘s Jen Temple said her group is also leaning toward “repair as soon as possible … six years is totally unacceptable to be cut off.” She said they also feel there’s been a “lot of stacking toward replacement” and said they’re also wondering why repair would “take so long.”
West Seattle Junction Association‘s Lora Radford said that she’s also concerned about the “rapid replacement” option also surfacing “200 days” into the process and feeling they don’t have enough information, especially in light of rumors that a “rapid replacement” could take only a little more time than repairs, and hopes to hear more about that Wednesday.
Greg Ramirez from the Georgetown Community Council said that in the beginning his community leaned toward repair to get the detour traffic “off our roads” but they’ve come to appreciate lifespan concerns and the possible waste of money on a failing asset. “We have to look longterm … but (also) six years is too long …. There are a lot more questions that need to be answered.”
Diane Sosne from SEIU Healthcare 1199 said, “Speed is of the utmost to reconnect West Seattle … I feel we should be looking quickly at … transit as part of the solution here, I wouldn’t want to separate that out.” She said she had looked up the aforementioned Lake Champlain Bridge, which took two years, as well as the much-discussed Genoa bridge replacement (here’s our April report), because she had wondered about “any type of hybrid … now I am very interested in a replacement that could be done in 2 years … but I also don’t want to take seven more months to study this.”
South Park Neighborhood Association‘s Aley Thompson is leaning toward replacement and ‘very conscious of the use of public funds … South Park neighbors aren’t excited about the idea of two closures,” but there’s not enough information yet to make a recommendation. However, “six years does sound a little bit nuts.”
Bob Watters said they need to drill down more on the timelines of each possible option. Also: “If we’re looking at equity as one of the attributes here, we have to look at soft costs …. people in West Seattle, businesses in West Seattle.”
Finally, a few remarks by the co-chairs:
Nickels noted that it seemed natural that SDOT might lean away from repair because they’d be responsible for the result, the costs of maintaining. He also offered a concern about the “rapid replacement” possibility – “It needs to be vetted, peer review by the TAP, our review by the affected community … to be sure we’re not making a promise of a 2 1/2-year replacement that we simply cannot fulfill.” He also noted that the mentions of Sound Transit are important, citing his recent involvement in the West Seattle-Ballard expansion’s stakeholders group. If a repair could last 15 years, “light rail will be done and we’ll have a backup” for a bridge closure then.
Lopez followed up by reiterating that the community impacts are vital to consider, and “how creative can we be” in terms of envisioning support.
ANSWERING ONE MAJOR QUESTION: Before the meeting wrapped up, SDOT’s Michael Harold addressed the timeline question, regarding how long a repair might last. Project leader Heather Marx tackled it. “One of the things it’s important to note, those numbers, 15 to 40 years, are not the results of any modeling … The number 15 is an assumption based on (a bridge code) saying “if you think you can get 15 years out of it, build it” … The 40-year number also doesn’t come from any direct modeling” – it’s that repairs could help the bridge last its full originally intended lifespan. “Engineers do their design work based on codes … which are built on models … which are built on extrapolations of what we expect to happen when the real world interacts with concrete and steel … It’s pretty important not to get too attached to those numbers because they really are just affectations of the code.”
So do you have confidence you can fix it and it will last 15 years? Nickels asked. Roadway structures director Matt Donahue replied, “I think we’re living the fact right now that even though you do your due diligence to live up to the code of the time … things don’t always work out as planned. .. A design life even if we calculated it specifically … wouldn’t necessarily apply to (the unrepaired parts of the bridge) … you can’t eliminate all the risk … there’s always a chance it won’t work out.”
Yes, but the failure area of the bridge is a relatively small part, noted Nickels. “Do you believe we can fix that to that kind of life?” Donahue replied, “We need to see how the bridge responds to the stabilization measures, how the bridge responds to the colder weather … (also) physically the space on the bridge (that’s being stabilized) is a small area of the bridge but has a huge impact” on how the bridge operates. Bottom line, he says the bridge may not be in good enough condition “to have a tolerable level of risk” if they proceed with repairs. That seems different from what the TAP has said, Nickels observed. You’d have to ask them, Donahue replied.
WHAT’S NEXT: The next official Task Force meeting, which will be open to public viewing in real time, is noon next Wednesday (October 21st). The CTF would set a date after that for its recommendations, so a new date for the mayor to announce her decision is not clear. SDOT says the full Cost-Benefit Analysis document will be released to the public next week as well as to the CTF. Meantime, they also plan to post a recording of today’s discussion.