By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
When will the mayor decide on repairing or replacing the eight-months-closed West Seattle Bridge?
Tonight’s “Town Hall” about the bridge didn’t answer that, nor did it include any other significant new information. It provided a recap of what’s been done in recent months, repeated insistence that the decision delay isn’t harming progress, and 45 minutes of Q&A on well-trod ground. If you missed it, here’s the video:
The online event was moderated by Department of Neighborhoods director Andrés Mantilla, a West Seattle resident. Here’s how it unfolded:
Mayor Jenny Durkan said the Town Hall was being held because “every time we approach a decision like this, we need as much community input as possible.” She said she already has heard “a sense of urgency” about how important the bridge is. She also acknowledged that the Community Task Force has done “a lot of work.” She promised “in the weeks ahead, we’re going to have a very clear path forward” regarding the bridge’s future. And she acknowledged the closure’s impact on Duwamish Valley communities of color as well as on West Seattle bridge users.
Then came something of a valedictory for the CTF co-chairs: Former mayor Greg Nickels said the process has not slowed down the work of getting toward the bridge’s future. Paulina López, executive director of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, said that safety and health are important priorities as well as mobility. She also acknowledged and thanked the dozens of CTF members. Here’s the roster, from the meeting’s slide deck:
López was followed by SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe, also a West Seattle resident, who noted attendance at that point was showing as more than 300 people. He recapped how we got to this point, insisting that the closure was not the result of “a maintenance (problem).” He also recapped the two major stabilization milestones reached in recent weeks – releasing Pier 18 bearings and installation of post-tensioning (steel cables).
The stabilization was necessary regardless of whether the next step is repair or replacement, Zimbabwe said. Each of the new cables is holding 280,000 pounds of tension, he added. He then recapped the Reconnect West Seattle traffic-mitigation project to date. He then touched on low-bridge access – no changes, automated enforcement still starting soon:
What’s next? Zimbabwe reiterated that they’re continuing to work on planning both repair/replace so no time would be lost. He said repair would enable reopening the bridge sometine in 2022.
Repair is roughly estimated at $50 million. “We have an older structure, we’ve seen the bridge respond well to what we’ve done so far, but this scenario would (run the risk) of another unplanned shutdown..” He also noted that closeup inspections would be required at least every six months for the next 5 years after repairs, requiring some lane closures, and also access inside the bridge.
If replacement were chosen – in the not-yet-thoroughly-vetted “rapid span replacement” scenario recently introduced – it would cost about half a billion upfront and could be complete in 2023 – he stressed that this would give more “certainty” about the future than repairing the current bridge.
The ability to speed up the timeline would be dependent on permits and procurement, among other things. He said the proposal for offsite fabrication has been proven elsewhere and they’re researching now to see if it would work here. He wrapped up by again insisting that – as the City Council was told last week – no time is being lost absent a longterm decision; the paths would have to “diverge” by next spring. And he recapped that non-city funding would have to be sought, and that tolling would be studied.
Q&A: This started after about 40 minutes. First: Can the low bridge be opened to all on weekends, or can restrictions be loosened at other times? Zimbabwe said that’s being studied by the CTF low-bridge subcommittee among others. He says opening the low bridge at 9 pm always leads to a big spike so at other times they would have to be sure that emergency and freight access would not be hampered. Automated enforcement might “open up those possibilities.”
Why isn’t more attention being paid to North Delridge/Delridge regarding issues caused by the closure? Zimbabwe noted that the RapidRide H Line project obviously is affecting the area and was planned “before the bridge crisis” but they tried to divide it into pieces “to minimize the impact over time”; they’re hopeful that the new RapidRide line will help with mobility. (Editor’s note: It’s scheduled to launch in September 2021.) He said Reonnect West Seattle has some North Delridge projects too.
Will there be more support for federal funding with the change in presidential) administration? Did the lag in the emergency declaration cost the city some time in seeking that? Mayor Durkan said no, there was no time lost; regarding the former, she’s talking to congressional reps and the governor.. “We’re actively making sure that when there is federal funding available, we will hopefully be near the head of the line for it.”
Is light rail still being considered for the Avalon area given the bridge failure? Yes, Sound Transit continues its studies, though the timetable remains uncertain because of the pandemic-caused financial crunch, Zimbabwe replied. If the bridge is repaired, there’s no chance of integrating ST, he said, but in a replacement scenario, maybe. Durkan, who’s on the Sound Transit Board, said they’ll be taking up schedule delays in December. She said that neither repair or replacement would enable integrating light rail – the latter because “rapid span replacement” would reuse existing supports.
What about the lowering of speed limits happening around the area? Zimbabwe said SDOT is reducing them around the city as part of the Vision Zero safety effort, and even a slight reduction and increase in signage can bring down the number of crashes and fatalities. He says reducing crashes is good when access is reduced, as with the bridge closure, and recalled a recent West Marginal crash that jammed things up.
When is the repair-or-replace decision going to be made and what happens in the next six months? Zimbabwe yet again reiterated that “we haven’t lost time on any pathway we’ve been on since the bridge has been closed.” He also warned of substantial “risks” – even if they choose repairs, they won’t be certain until the last minute how the bridge will respond to them.
Next question was about maintenance funding and whether there were previous plans for replacing the bridge. Zimbabwe said the cracking first detected in 2013 gave no hint that replacement or major repairs would be needed so they didn’t have plans for that – the bridge overall was in better condition than many others around the city.. “This was not on the concern list.” He also noted that the March discovery was made during an inspection that was happening sooner than required. The mayor then noted that they tapped funding immediately when the closure need was announced, because they needed to ensure the bridge wouldn’t collapse. “Once the bridge failed, our ability to repair it would have been greatly diminished.”
Another question sought more details on the lifetime cost suggested for a repaired bridge – where did that sum come from, does it include a future replacement? Zimbabwe said yes – and beyond, projecting costs/value as far out as 2100. The mayor added that the same kind of lifetime-cost projection is what made the immersed-tube tunnel concept seem infeasible.
What about more-frequent bus service? Zimbabwe thanked voters for their recent approval of Proposition 1, which buys more bus service, and reminded everyone that it specifically includes money for some West Seattle service additions because of the bridge crisis. No specifics, though.)
What about increased Water Taxi service? They’re still talking to Metro, he said, looking ahead to increased demand as traffic increases. The mayor added, “We’re looking at how we can expand that service” and how all forms of mobility can be expanded “until we get this bridge open.” (No specifics with this either, though.)
What about ensuring diversity of workforce on whatever project is chosen? The mayor said that’s a priority, and they’re talking to tradespeople/organizations to ensure it happens.
Has the city talked to major employers about West Seattle workers’ ability to work remotely while the bridge is out? Zimbabwe said yes, they’ve been talking to both employers and employees. He noted that the governor’s new guidelines continue to urge remote work.
Another question suggested that SDOT had at one point said the progression would be stabilization to repair, even if replacement was the pathway after that. They had not (having covered this since day one, we can confirm that). But, Zimbabwe added, “in a repair scenario, we would still need to plan for an eventual replacement” (that has always been the case).
What are the criteria for commercial vehicles to access the low bridge? 10,000 GVW is the threshold, Zimbabwe said. “We have had some limited exemptions for Harbor Island workers and businesses through West Seattle organizations” (the Chamber of Commerce and WS Junction Association). They’ve been using passes but the camera enforcement will enable more flexibility.
Back to funding. “Are there any limitations to federal funding that would require a certain course of action?” The mayor said, “it depends on what’s available, and the timing.” She said they don’t believe Congress will take up infrastructure funding until the middle of next year. But, she said, it’s clear that having a bridge that’s out will be a better shot at funding than one that just needs repair. She also noted that Kentucky has a big new bridge outage and that’s Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell‘s state. (Here’s what we think she was referring to; it appears to be a short-term problem.)
What about using a car ferry from, say, Fauntleroy to downtown? Zimbabwe said they’ve talked to Washington State Ferries but there’s “very limited dock space at the ferry terminal downtown” as well as challenges in Fauntleroy so “we haven’t quite cracked the nut yet of how to utilize ferries.” He also repeated that many people who use Southworth/Vashon to Fauntleroy are going south, NOT downtown. The mayor also noted that ferry speeds mean not that much time would be saved if water travel were used instead.
What about the condition of the 1st Ave. S. Bridge and South Park Bridge? Neither is a city structure, it was noted; as we first reported last month, the former will have some southbound lane closures early next year. The South Park Bridge, county-owned and city-operated, is much newer and in much better condition.
What’s the plan to address economic impacts to businesses and residents? The mayor acknowledged the new COVID restrictions are “devastating” to many, but “we are working with the governor’s office to see if we can get additional state funding” to help businesses as well as rent relief for workers, among other things. (Not just West Seattle, though.) As for whether the economic impact has been analyzed, Zimbabwe pointed to the Cost-Benefit Analysis taking on a bit of that, but said the COVID impacts have complicated any such analysis right now – so much uncertainty.
What is the upcoming community-engagement plan and the Community Task Force’s future? Zimbabwe noted the CTF has at least two more meetings coming up, one of which will address the group’s future “regardless of pathway.” He sees a potential role throughout the bridge closure, if the members are up for it.
In closing remarks, the mayor said the CTF members are split “roughly 50-50” between replace and repair. She reiterated that she knows the closure is a hardship, and that they’ve looked at “additional solutions” for restoring mobility – even putting in a “temporary structure,” which turned out to be infeasible because the Duwamish “is a working river.” She said she’s tapping into “what the experts believe and what the community believes” regarding a path forward. She says she’s getting briefed at least weekly and in contact with many others. “We are all in this together … as much as it feels like West Seattle is ‘an accidental island’ … this is one of the essential corridors” for the entire city, not just the peninsula, affecting thousands of jobs.
The questions that weren’t answered will be answered by email (if submitted that way) and in upcoming posts, it was promised. Heres what else SDOT says is happening next:
The mayor is scheduled to talk to the CTF on Thursday at 3:30 pm (you can watch here).