by Lizz Giordano
With the opening of the West Seattle Bridge on Sunday, Sept. 18, the Duwamish Valley is counting down the days to fewer vehicles passing through the neighborhood and regaining its streets for slower uses.
The Seattle Department of Transportation closed the bridge in late March 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic and as stay-at-home orders were announced. As people began to hunker down, most neighborhood streets saw less traffic, but that wasn’t the case for the Duwamish Valley, where the only public bridges on and off the peninsula were located.
“We had the exact opposite. There was this huge flood of really dangerous congestion that happened in and around our neighborhoods, whether that is Delridge or South Park or Georgetown, that the rest of the city didn’t see,” said Erica Bush, who coleads Duwamish Valley Safe Streets, a local offshoot of Seattle Neighborhood Greenways.
“And it meant that we in those communities, which were already impacted, were then worse impacted during COVID, which was really hard. And it was especially hard on young families,” Bush said.
Bush, who lived in both Georgetown and Delridge during the span of the closure, avoided leaving or returning home between the hours of 2 and 8 p.m. On her bike, Bush’s main mode of transportation, the congested streets felt dangerous.
After regular inspections of the bridge showed rapidly growing cracks in the main span, the City closed the bridge, built in 1984, which had carried about 100,000 vehicles a day pre-pandemic.
To mitigate the rerouting of thousands of cars, SDOT launched a series of updates called Reconnect West Seattle. These projects included improving and installing sidewalks and crosswalks, and “Home Zone” projects that aimed to create pedestrian-friendly neighborhood streets.
Ultimately, the work didn’t nullify the massive impact of the traffic, said Bush; there was still a huge number of cars driving through residential communities.
“I really hope that people aren’t too adjusted to the new route,” Bush added. “I’m worried that there’s going to remain more traffic in these neighborhoods.”
As more vehicles were routed south, increased traffic brought with it worse air quality to Georgetown and South Park compared to the year before, unlike other areas of the city that saw improvement to particulate pollution, according to a report by the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition.
“Our air quality didn’t improve at all from the lack of people going to work,” said Robin Schwartz, a development and community advocate for the organization.
During the two-year-plus closure, Schwartz, who is also part of the South Park Neighborhood Association, was able to pivot to working from home. But the increased cut-through traffic made the streets feel unsafe for kids to be riding their bikes around, she said.
It was a hard situation for SDOT, Schwartz added, but she felt the agency was pretty consistent with working with the neighborhoods to help ease the pain of hosting West Seattle’s traffic.
The bridge closure was really difficult for West Seattle, said Heather Marx, SDOT’s program director for the project, especially piled on top of the pandemic.
SDOT pinpointed post-tensioning, the tightening of cables that run through the concrete bridge, as the cause of the cracks. When the bridge was built, said Marx, the post-tensioning, while done according to the standards of the time, wasn’t enough. Standards have since changed.
To stabilize and repair the bridge, workers injected epoxy into the cracks, filling the gaps to protect the rebar inside. A carbon-fiber wrap was added to further strengthen the concrete, and crews also installed a new monitoring system. Then, in the hollow girders that make up the body of the bridge, crews installed new post-tensioning cables that, when tightened, compressed the concrete together. A concrete strike delayed the opening by a couple of months.
SDOT’s contractor spent the last weeks before the opening load testing — strategically playing large loads around the bridge and measuring how the bridge responds. SDOT expects this repair will preserve the bridge for “the rest of its useful life” — another 40 years.
Lizz Giordano is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Seattle’s Rainier Valley focusing on transit and housing. She can be reached on Twitter @lizzgior, and more of her work can be found on her website.
Before you move on to the next story … Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!