Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision to repair rather than replace the broken West Seattle Bridge may be debated for decades to come.
But her Thursday decision provides certainty and practicality the city desperately needs as it grapples with the pandemic and economic recovery. Seattle must now get the bridge done as quickly and safely as possible, and redouble efforts to maintain all its bridges.
Repairing the West Seattle Bridge will be faster and cheaper up front but could cost about the same as a replacement over the long term.
That’s because Seattle still has to replace the bridge in 15 to 40 years, so it’s committing to two massive expenditures in the corridor during this generation.
The repair option also requires more annual maintenance spending.
This dilemma — and terrible congestion and pollution caused since the cracking forced the bridge closure in March — highlights the importance of adequately funding bridge maintenance to avoid additional debacles with the city’s 77 bridges.
Astonishingly, a majority of the Seattle City Council apparently does not appreciate the urgency of this need.
On Wednesday, Council President M. Lorena González scuttled a wise proposal to use car-tab revenue to start addressing the city’s chronic underfunding of bridge maintenance and preservation.
A September audit, prompted by the West Seattle situation, found the condition of Seattle’s bridges worsened over the last decade as City Hall ignored warnings of its own bridge experts and spent soaring revenues on other things.
Only 22 of the city’s 77 bridges are now in “good” condition, and two major ones, the Magnolia and University bridges, are rated in worse condition than the West Seattle Bridge was before its closure.
Council Transportation Chair Alex Pedersen called to start closing the maintenance gap with revenue from a $20 car-tab fee, providing $3.6 million.
But that smart idea was shot down by González, along with members Teresa Mosqueda, Tammy Morales, Kshama Sawant and Dan Strauss.
They opted instead to ask advocacy groups (which want car-tab dollars spent on their causes) and Durkan’s administration (which shortchanges maintenance) how to spend car-tab revenue. That’s like asking kids if they want salad or candy, instead of deciding what’s best for dinner.
González said it’s “possible” after that process “that a portion of the dollars” still go to bridge maintenance.
While there are merits to transit and bike causes, they are already generously funded by the city. Seattle taxpayers also just approved a sales tax that will generate more than $26 million a year for a variety of bus and non-car spending.
Caving to groups wanting ever more, instead of promptly funding maintenance and avoiding more pollution-causing closures, could be self-interest: Advocacy groups and labor organizations behind them heavily support loyal politicians.
Keep those politicians in mind when the next bridge breaks and you’re stuck on an endless bus ride or in a traffic jam and can’t get to work on time, have to leave a child waiting in the dark for a ride or deliver a baby en route to the hospital.
In the meantime, the council must reconsider its shortsighted decision again to shortchange bridge maintenance so it can dole out more to special interests.
If this public need wasn’t obvious after the West Seattle Bridge failure and the city audit, it’s overwhelmingly clear now that Seattle is committing to a repair job that will consume much of its meager maintenance budget for decades.
Durkan said she will ask regional, state and federal governments to help pay for the West Seattle Bridge project.
That might be a reasonable request if City Hall finds the willpower to prioritize maintenance of such critical assets over the extended hands of political allies.
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