By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
On a day that began with a one-two punch that rendered the 415-days-and-counting West Seattle Bridge closure extra-painful, the Community Task Force‘s monthly online gathering brought some news, as well as discussion of the ultimate Frequently Asked Question – why isn’t it fixed yet? – and a few other common questions.
That’s where we begin this month’s coverage of the advisory group’s meeting.
MEMBERS’ COMMENTS/QUESTIONS: Before the scheduled presentations, CTF co-chair Paulina López from the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition opened the floor to members for open discussion, such as “what are you hearing in the community?” She began by mentioning concerns about speeding and other driver problems in South Park now that schools have reopened for part-time in-person learning. Member Deb Barker from the West Seattle Transportation Coalition brought up frustrations that she has heard, including low-bridge access restrictions and lack of visible work on the bridge. Bridge project director Heather Marx said even once work begins, there won’t be much to see because most of it will be inside the bridge. Barker also said she was shocked that no West Seattle/Duwamish Valley voices were heard in the the City Council’s recent discussion of how to spend $20 in car=tab taxes, not committing it to bridge maintenance. Barker said the general attitude from commenters who were there was “bridges really aren’t that important.” Later in the meeting, Newell Aldrich of City Councilmember Lisa Herbold‘s staff tried to explain the vote, saying Herbold originally had sponsored an amendment to state an intent to dedicate 75 percent of the money to bridge/structure maintenance; this week’s unanimous council vote removed that statement of intent, but does not specify what the money will and wont go for in future years.)
Member Anne Higuera of Ventana Construction (WSB sponsor) said she’s also hearing the same concerns Barker mentioned. Though CTF meetings amply cover the process of moving toward repairs, Higuera says one question that’s difficult to answer is “What exactly is wrong with the bridge – what went wrong?” and what’s keeping it out of operation now. She suggested that SDOT put out an explanation to clarify this for people, especially those “who have a vested interest in getting the bridge back … are still not understanding what’s happening.”
Member Dan Austin from the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce seconded what Barker said about the $20 vehicle license tax, as well as the lack of public understanding about how the process is proceeding. Austin suggested that SDOT create an explanatory video.
Member John Persak from Georgetown said that his community – now the main detour for West Seattleites getting to and from I-5 – hasn’t seen much traffic-mitigation activity beyond some initial speed-bump installation. He also noted “increased interest in bike connectivity” to and from the area.
HIGH BRIDGE UPDATE: SDOT’s Greg Izzo said they’re “slightly ahead” of schedule, with an independent cost review under way, and 60 percent design expected in early July, by which time a contractor will be hired. As we reported earlier this week, three finalists were chosen for interviews; those are complete, and the three firms will now submit price proposals. Those will be opened May 19th, and a final selection is expected May 24th. Izzo tried to answer the “why is it taking so long?” question by explaining that since some federal funding is involved, they have to be extra-careful with every step, every detail. (For example, they’re waiting for federal approval of the Community Workforce Agreement.) Here again is the overall timeline, with construction expected to start in the fourth quarter:
Are there any incentives for finishing early? Izzo was asked. “There could be ways to incentivize monetarily,” he said, “but fundamentally the (General Contractor/Construction Management type of) contract is a partnership” and they are expected to work with the city to overcome obstacles. Challenges ahead will include “negotiating with the contractor to get to that final price.” Also, if there’s a “protest” in the process = by a contractor who didn’t win the bid – that could hold things up, though he says they’ve been so methodical through this, that’s not expected. Some “early works packages” may bring work crews to the bridge before the official start of repair construction, he said. (No details were offered; we’re following up on that, as well as on whether there really aren’t going to be financial incentives for finishing early.)
WHY CAN’T EMERGENCY VEHICLES USE THE HIGH BRIDGE NOW? Izzo addressed this question:
There would have to be a way to manage the access for emergency vehicles, for one; the bridge is stabilized but “a lot of pencil stresses would be (a possibility) if live load were introduced on the bridge at this time … we don’t feel it’s worth the risk.” Also, even if they did, that access wouldn’t be for very long since they now have the possibility of the aforementioned “early works” projects even before the main repairs begin, so basically, they suggested, it wouldn’t be worth the trouble. As one more exhibit, he showed photos of how the bridge looks now:
Zimbabwe said, “We realize the frustration with people thinking there’s no work going on on the bridge” and said he is open to suggestions of ways to communicate that there “IS a lot of work going on to get the bridge back in service,” it’s just behind the scenes.
LOW-BRIDGE ACCESS UPDATES: SDOT’s new low-bridge program manager Maureen Sheehan led this briefing. They’ve now granted 60 applications for low-bridge access to get to life-saving medical treatment and, as noted at another recent briefing, 600 access applications from all categories have come in. For access by June 1st, the application needs to be in May 15th (for all categories but life-saving treatment – those get expedited review as they come in, SDOT says, but they also need to reapply every three months). Here are the questions Sheehan said they’re getting frequently:
SDOT’s Matt Beaulieu picked it up from there with data. He had charts showing that low-bridge use is down during the restricted hours. But violations are up – the low bridge had been averaging 500 unauthorized trips a day, and now it’s around 600 to 700. About half are warnings, and half are citations.
Traffic is nowhere near what the bridge could handle – look at the difference between the blue bars and the red threshold lines:
Taking the future anticipated T-5 truck traffic (the gray bars) into account, some dayparts might exceed capacity when the first T-5 dock opens to cargo next year. So access will have to change in January, said Sheehan, and they’re starting “outreach” for that now.
Higuera wondered about what happens to the money from the $75 low-bridge-ticket fines – calculating that with the numbers Beaulieu showed, that could bring in more than $50,000 a day. Some of the money goes to camera operation; half of what remains goes to a state accessible-transportation fund.
RECONNECT WEST SEATTLE: SDOT’s Sara Zora said traffic, transit, and bicycling volumes are trending slightly upward. She updated Home Zone traffic-mitigation projects – South Park and Georgetown speed-hump construction is done; the 60 speed humps headed for Highland Park and vicinity are halfway done and should be complete by the end of June.
On West Marginal Way’s west side, sidewalk installation is happening this weekend and next weekend; the interim signal and crosswalk will be as soon as late August, with permanent sidewalk and signal work next year.
Zora did not mention the status of the controversial protected-bike-lane proposal until a question from Persak, who said that project should get an environmental review. She said that a decision on the proposal is still on track to be made .before the end of June but the next step is a meeting with SDOT leadership and the Freight and Bicycle Advisory Boards . Task Force member Peter Steinbrueck, a Seattle port commissioner, said what’s really needed is grade-separated bicycle/pedestrian infrastructure because “mixing bikes and trucks” is not the way to go.
LOW BRIDGE PROBLEM: At the start of the meeting, co-chair Greg Nickels asked about the overnight closure. “A mechanical issue on the tail lock” is how Marx described it, saying it’s “part of” the repair project that will involve the low bridge as well as the high bridge. Pending those repairs, this is an “intermittent” problem, Marx said. Hours after the meeting, we got another update from SDOT, and added it to our original coverage.)
LOW BRIDGE UPDATE: Izzo also updated the projects that are separate from what will be included in the high-bridge contract.
The low-bridge controls project will go out to bid in the next week or so, later than expected but the overall schedule calls for it to be done by year’s end. The “lift cylinders” work is on track too.
NEW BRIDGE DESIGN, JUST IN CASE: In the final moments of the meeting, bridge project director Marx said SDOT has continued design work on the “rapid span replacement” concept that was being explored just before Mayor Jenny Durkan decreed last November that repairs would be the immediate pathway instead of replacement. SDOT has consistently said that in the ensuing half-year that it still needs to work on replacement planning just in case, but this was the first mention that work has proceeded on a specific option. Marx said they decided to take the “rapid replacement” concept to “30 percent design … out of an abundance of caution just in case the worst happens and the repair fails.” We are following up on this too.
NEXT NEETING: 4 pm Thursday, June 10th, with replacement planning among the topics.