West Seattle Bridge Will Be Repaired

by Tracy Record

(This article originally appeared on the West Seattle Blog and has been reprinted under an agreement.)

The suspense is over.

Mayor Jenny Durkan announced this morning that the City will repair the West Seattle Bridge, eight months after she announced its shockingly sudden closure.

While the alternative — replacing its damaged midsection with a shiny new steel span — was appealing, she and SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe acknowledged in a pre-announcement media briefing that covering its cost and achieving a “rapid replacement” timeline seemed out of reach. So, to get West Seattle moving again as soon as possible, she decided that repairing the bridge is the way to go.

It’s been five months since the city’s top bridge manager disclosed that repairs seemed possible and four months since the Technical Advisory Panel concurred. The question was whether repairs were feasible, not just possible.

In the briefing, the mayor characterized her choice as facilitating a “plan to safely and quickly restore mobility” — though “quickly” isn’t really the word for what will have been a 2-year closure if the projected time frame for repairs works out. (It’s not a surprise, though, as the City has consistently said since April 15 that traffic would not return to the bridge in any scenario before 2022.) She said economic factors weighed most heavily in the decision — the potential cost to West Seattle businesses and residents as well as port jobs if the closure lasted too long.

She said she had been leaning toward replacement, but the “rapid” timeline did not seem a sure bet and finding half a billion dollars to fund it didn’t either. The rosy suggestion of a possible 2023 completion for the “rapid span replacement” conflicted with the City’s experience in getting permits for prior projects. However, the bridge will eventually need to be replaced, so planning for that will continue, with a type, size, and location study. She stressed that they would aspire to a multimodal bridge — more transit, maybe even bicycling — and they would continue talking to Sound Transit.

SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe talked about the nuts and bolts of the work, both what’s been done and what’s now ahead. He said the stabilization work that’s been done so far is “performing well to date.” He described the plan as a “challenging engineering solution” and “highly technical work.” They’re also studying the bridge to see what other parts of it might need repair before the end of its expected lifespan in 40 years. But they are confident the repairs will succeed.

Once the repairs are designed, a contractor will be sought to run the project as a GC/CM — General Contractor/Construction Manager — which city documents describe as an “alternative public works delivery method” that “is intended to create a more collaborative relationship between the City and the General Contractor that is not found in a traditional ‘design-bid-build’ delivery method.” That selection process is expected to start in spring; the actual repairs would start in fall.

Looking beyond the repairs, Zimbabwe said they’ll go ahead with a traffic/revenue study as well as the type, size, and location study the mayor mentioned (which would look at a wide range of possible replacements, including a tunnel, project leader Heather Marx confirmed). Also in the future, they’ll work to strengthen the low bridge, as Marx noted while running through other components of the project. The Reconnect West Seattle traffic-mitigation projects are expected to total about $50 million. Zimbabwe pointed out that stabilization work so far has cost about $20 million.

The West Seattle Blog asked about a big question that remained after the pre-announcement briefing: Why is the actual repair work not expected to start until fall of next year? Both Zimbabwe and Technical Advisory Panel (TAP) co-chair Barbara Moffat said they need to observe the stabilization work’s response to a full thermal cycle before the repair design can be finalized. In response to another question, Moffat said the timelines projected so far have been admittedly “conservative.” She reiterated that the TAP feels it’s an “eminently doable repair scenario.” She also said the original bridge plans included an “option” for added posttensioning (the steel strengthening cables) that wasn’t considered necessary at the time (but is now part of the stabilization). And she said it’s certainly possible the repair could be completed more quickly, but they don’t yet know the “methods” that will be used, so it’s too soon to say.

Other participants in the announcement event included West Seattle/South Park City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who had already indicated support for repair, saying she agrees it’s “the best approach.”

The most exuberant participant was Port of Seattle Commission Chair Peter Steinbrueck (a former city councilmember), who proclaimed, “We can all breathe a great sigh of relief today!” Though the port hadn’t previously taken a stand, Steinbrueck said he and Tacoma’s port commission chair, together leading the Northwest Seaport Alliance (developing the Terminal 5 expansion), both support the decision.

The Community Task Force’s co-chairs spoke too. Paulina López of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition reminded everyone of the increased traffic and pollution affecting communities, including South Park and Georgetown, because of the detours. Former Mayor Greg Nickels said, “There’s a lot more work to do.”

Task Force member Lora Radford, executive director of the West Seattle Junction Association, was the last speaker with a message for everyone — “Support small business” (since community resiliency matters even more with another year-plus of bridgelessness ahead) — and an invitation for the rest of the region: “Pack a picnic, turn your GPS on, and come visit us.”

WHAT’S NEXT? Members of the advisory Community Task Force already have been notified of the mayor’s decision, and met with her during an online meeting at 3:30 p.m. today. On the bridge, stabilization work will continue into December. As the permanent repairs are designed, they should have a clearer idea next year of cost.

ONE LAST ISSUE: At the heart of this remains the fact the bridge failed decades before it should have, and West Seattleites and neighboring communities are facing a total of 2 years of negative impacts as a result. So, we asked the mayor in the pre-announcement briefing, what is planned regarding determining who’s to blame and whether the City has any recourse, perhaps with the original builder? Durkan replied that they’ve “consulted with city attorneys” who are reviewing original documents, “If there’s anything (we can do), we’re going to pursue it.” She paused and laughed. “I’m not afraid to sue!”



Some traffic might return to the bridge in “the first part of 2022” but the projected completion is “mid-2022.”


That’s what SDOT expects, though an early-2022 reopening might have to be “phased in.”


Next fall.


Consultant WSP is designing the repairs, and then a contractor will be sought to build/install them.


The Cost-Benefit Analysis made a rough estimate of almost $50 million but that won’t be refined until the repairs are designed.


Projected 15 to 40 years.

Tracy Record is the editor of the West Seattle Blog.

Featured image is attributed to Bryan McLellan under a Creative Commons – Non Commercial 2.0 License.

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