When one of the state’s most vital bridges is so deteriorated that falling concrete makes shoreline parks underneath too dangerous for visitors, it’s time to reexamine transportation funding priorities.
That’s the situation with the Interstate 5 Ship Canal Bridge over Lake Union. The Washington State Department of Transportation closed Seattle’s North Passage Point Park and South Passage Point Park along Lake Union last month because bits of debris were falling from the bridge.
The span, constructed 60 years ago, remains safe for traffic, said WSDOT. But as Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom revealed, the eroding concrete, along with potholes and rusting beams, illustrate the state’s historical underinvestment in one of the West Coast’s marquee bridges.
According to WSDOT, the southbound bridge was scheduled for bridge deck overlay and expansion joint work in 2019, but the work was delayed until 2023 due to a lack of funding.
Later this year, WSDOT will seek bids for Ship Canal Bridge preservation work. The entire project includes paving, bridge deck repairs and expansion-joint replacement in both directions of I-5 between Yesler Way and Northeast 117th Street near Northgate. The work is scheduled to wrap up in late 2025, and the parks may open after that.
When asked why the Ship Canal Bridge was allowed to deteriorate, Secretary Roger Millar told the editorial board: “Because we need to be spending $2 billion a year (on maintenance and preservation) and we’re spending $925 million dollars a year.”
The Ship Canal Bridge is no ordinary roadway.
In the same Zoom meeting, Mike Cotten, WSDOT Northwest Region Administrator, had an image of the bridge as his video conferencing backdrop. “I use this as my wallpaper because for me in the Northwest region, this is my poster child for state of good repair and preservation,” he said.
The 182-foot tall structure carries more than 200,000 vehicles a day, and it’s vital to the state’s economy. It has been 22 years since the last major preservation project.
Apart from maintenance and repair, many I-5 bridges in the Seattle area — including the Ship Canal Bridge — do not meet current seismic standards. There is no funding to do so.
WSDOT has asked for $5 million to help identify the I-5 bridges from Arlington to Tumwater that would need to be retrofitted. The funding could also examine preservation and maintenance, along with ways to efficiently manage the system and expand technology and innovation. In past budgets, the proposal was zeroed out by the Legislature.
The Legislature is reviewing Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposal of more than $1 billion in additional transportation spending as part of his supplemental budget. The fate of a much larger state transportation package remains uncertain.
Washington is slated to receive $605 million over five years as part of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that 416 state bridges are in poor condition.
WSDOT must continue to move as quickly as possible to repair and maintain the Ship Canal Bridge. As lawmakers consider transportation funding this session, they should make ongoing bridge preservation a priority, and start investing in seismic work so that the region’s main transportation network survives potential catastrophes.
The Ship Canal is not just one example of many roadways in need of preservation and repair. It must be a primary concern, for the safety of thousands of drivers, the functionality of the state’s largest city and the viability of the northwest’s economy.