Seattle, born on the shores of Elliott Bay, has always been reliant on bridges. More than 100 years ago, the Ballard, Fremont, Roosevelt, Montlake and South Park bridges were built to connect a growing city, while waterborne commerce moved along the Ship Canal and Duwamish River out to Puget Sound, connecting Seattle’s economy to the world. 

Today, several bridges carry hundreds of thousands of vehicles through Seattle daily: Highway 520, Interstate 90, Interstate 5, the Ship Canal Bridge, the First Avenue South Bridge — and until recently — the West Seattle Bridge (WSB). Its sudden closure creates an urgent need for communities and industries alike. Impacts to this transportation hub highlight our maritime economy’s dependency on the free movement of people, goods and vehicles through the busiest maritime freight center in the state. 

What’s at risk?

Much more than the inconvenience of lengthy detours for commuters, the bridge failure puts at grave risk the largest public investment ever made by the combined ports of Tacoma and Seattle — The Northwest Seaport Alliance’s Terminal 5 — adjacent to the WSB. When this international container terminal is complete, it will provide the best intermodal facilities to some of the largest cargo vessels on the West Coast. At a time of economic downturn and job loss due to the health pandemic, we cannot put at risk the opportunity to expand trade, restart the statewide economy and grow living-wage jobs throughout the region.

As we continue to evaluate the cause of the bridge’s structural failure and the feasibility of repair versus replacement, our maritime industrial organizations are pleased to be represented on Seattle’s WSB Community Task Force, a group of community advocates, local businesses and elected officials. We are committed to working collaboratively with the city to determine the best path forward for reconnecting West Seattle and restoring capacity for impacted communities and workforce. 

But we can’t wait too long.

Roughly 100,000 vehicles a day relied on the high bridge. Now, alternative routes are passing through some of the most disadvantaged communities in Seattle, creating traffic snarls even before any return to pre-COVID-19 volumes. Other bridges, including the Southwest Spokane Street Swing Bridge, even with delays cannot begin to carry much of the prior traffic. This untenable situation leaves us with limited options for how to maintain our waterways that provide so many living-wage jobs and economic benefit to our state.

As we move toward economic recovery amid the current health crisis, having the marine cargo terminals fully operational will be critical to protecting the almost 60,000 good, direct family-wage jobs. This is the one bright spot in our current malaise: The Northwest Seaport Alliance’s cargo operations that directly support economic recovery throughout our region.

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We know many details on the WSB response are still forthcoming, but we must look to find the dollars now necessary to rebuild. With a project of such importance with reach beyond our state, we will need to start knocking on doors in the other Washington, making the case beyond our region. If we were not in a global pandemic, this closure would have already been acknowledged as a statewide emergency, with leaders keenly focused on how to allocate resources to this economic and transportation necessity.

We cannot afford to allow the usual “Seattle process” of chattering minds to create conversational delay in the decision-making as options are explored. Businesses and communities that have called the Duwamish River Valley home for decades are already feeling unprecedented impacts. 

The Northwest Seaport Alliance will continue to work with stakeholders along the Duwamish to find the best solutions to these pressing problems of impacting traffic and area businesses, while we move forward with making Terminal 5 the premier shipping facility on the West Coast. 

The challenge of how to repair or replace the failing bridge demands a regional vision. The WSB failure is an economic emergency and should be declared as such by Gov. Jay Inslee. Support from every level of government and the marshaling of all available resources are urgently needed to bring about our state’s economic return.