Even if the plan means a detour hassle, Seattle officials say it’s best to replace the Fairview Avenue North bridges at the same time, with one wide bridge, than to tear up the street again years from now to rebuild the east bridge.

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As if traffic into South Lake Union weren’t tricky enough, the city of Seattle expects to close all lanes of nearby Fairview Avenue North late next year to rebuild a pair of crumbling bridges.

The detour plan would send thousands of cars, buses and delivery trucks through side streets around the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance campus.

Neighborhood watchdogs question such a strategy and have dug up public documents that describe another option for the $27 million project.

Critics argue the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) can get by with replacing only the western bridge, built in 1948 on wood timbers, and retrofitting the eastern bridge that was built on concrete in 1963.

That way, traffic would keep flowing in one lane each direction. The concrete bridge could be strengthened, using carbon fiber, for maybe $8.6 million less, one city document suggests.

“Complete replacement and closure are unnecessary and wasteful of levy funds,” argues Chris Leman, president of the Eastlake Community Council. The project is to be funded through the Let’s Move Seattle levy, approved by voters last year.

City officials reply that it’s smarter to replace both crossings now, with one wide bridge, than tear up the street years later to rebuild the aging east bridge — even if SDOT’s plan creates a detour hassle.

“If traffic is the only thing you cared about, maybe, but that would be overlooking every other factor,” said project manager MariLyn Yim.

Little-known crossing

A year ago, Mayor Ed Murray chose the little-known Fairview crossing, a few feet from the Lake Union shore and the ZymoGenetics building, to kick off the city’s transportation-levy campaign.

“This wooden-supported bridge, the last remaining wooden-supported bridge in the city, is structurally outdated and seismically not safe,” he said. “We need to replace it. With passage of Let’s Move Seattle, we’ll be able to replace it.”

In fact, Fairview is the only major bridge replacement fully funded by the nine-year, $930 million levy, which costs families $62 per $100,000 of property value yearly.

After the election, Leman and Eastlake neighbor Eric Suni learned that only the western side actually sits on rotting timbers. The campaign rhetoric bothers them, as did SDOT information cards that called it a timber bridge, with no disclaimers.

“This whole juggernaut is being pushed, in a very misleading way, when the evidence they’ve been hiding for a long time seems to indicate it’s not necessary,’’ Leman said.

A 2014 study, by local engineers outside SDOT, said the city might save $8.6 million by replacing only the wood portion and strengthening the concrete east portion.

“The [east] bridge’s condition may not warrant replacement,” they say. “It is in much better load-carrying and seismic condition than many of the City’s bridge structures.”

From the underside, cracks are clearly visible where lengthwise girders have buckled at the ends. Epoxy could fill those, the report said, while carbon would be wrapped around brittle joints where the in-water pilings meet the giant crossbeams. It could endure a 1,000-year quake, the report said.

And the east bridge could be fastened to the new concrete west bridge for lateral stability. (A similar anchoring strategy was used by SDOT five years ago in the Spokane Street Viaduct expansion and seismic improvement.)

John Buswell, SDOT’s veteran manager of roadway structures, estimated that carbon wrap could make the repaired spots last 20 more years or so — but he can’t predict if the rest of the bridge would last that long, even after paying for repairs. A typical design life of 60 years for mid-20th-century concrete structures is nearing its end, he said.

On a sufficiency scale of 1 to 100, which assesses structural and traffic factors, the east bridge rates a 41, which Buswell said qualifies it for replacement under federal standards. The wooden west bridge is rated at 24.

SDOT’s full replacement calls for columns 100 feet beyond the lake bed, into firm glacial soil that wouldn’t liquefyeven in a severe quake. And there would be fewer columns in the water than today, better for fish habitat, Yim said.

Streetcar subplot

Why wouldn’t the city, which so often claims to be short of money, keep the east bridge and save $8.6 million?

One reason is, SDOT can save the similar sum of about $9 million, and still replace both sides, if it closes Fairview completely. Costs were approaching $34 million, but an accelerated 15-month timeline would help SDOT finish at or below the $27 million target.

SDOT Director Scott Kubly said Friday that savings could amount to $17 million, in a letter to the City Council and Eastlake activists. A further breakdown was not available over the weekend.

SDOT says it earlier considered a two-phase, two-year project but changed course to stay on budget. The total disruption, including traffic and noise echoing across Lake Union, would be over sooner, Yim said.

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Streetcars are another subplot.

The City Council and former Mayor Greg Nickels flirted with the idea of a five-line streetcar network, including an Eastlake line, as recently as 2008. Each vehicle weighs close to 100,000 pounds, and engineers discussed how new bridges would be needed if streetcars were added someday.

Current thinking is to build a quicker bus corridor, the so-called “RapidRide +” that Murray promised citywide but has struggled to deliver.

Yim said future streetcar capacity is one consideration, but not among the main reasons to choose a full rebuild.

Detour details

Meanwhile, planners at King County Metro Transit are preparing to detour Route 70, which carried 7,700 daily passengers this spring and continues to grow rapidly. An additional 14,000 or so cars would also be affected.

Electric trolley buses would be replaced by diesel buses, or new-generation trolleys that can go partly off-wire.

Metro would use Aloha Street, where Yim said SDOT would remove a traffic-calming circle while restriping the roads and imposing parking restrictions in the area.

Ironically, the existing South Lake Union streetcar might be partly freed from chronic car gridlock where Fairview meets Valley and Mercer streets because so much general traffic would be diverted upstream.

 

Even assuming the full-closure plan is carried out, Leman raises one more critique about congestion and political transparency:

The city is undertaking a Roosevelt-Eastlake-South Lake Union transit study, but hasn’t proposed to add a bus lane, or even a second general lane to the current single general lane, on the new Fairview bridge.

“The greatest delays now and in the future for the buses will be in the Mercer Mess area,” Leman said, and so he hopes the mayor, City Council and SDOT keep an open mind about that.