As Seattle prospered in recent years, its elected officials let critical infrastructure decay. Now they must face the music.
The collapse of a waterfront pier last week and the West Seattle Bridge’s closure due to cracking are dramatic illustrations of this problem.
Now shortcomings are quantified, in a troubling new city audit that reveals how extensively City Hall shortchanged basic maintenance obligations.
Despite revenue declines, Seattle must substantially increase bridge maintenance funding when it drafts a new budget this fall. It also needs to be saving up for replacement of decrepit bridges identified in the City Auditor’s report.
The audit says it well: “Keeping up with maintenance on bridges is important for controlling costs, connecting communities, and protecting life.”
This should be a wake-up call for officials who weren’t jolted enough by the West Seattle Bridge failure to reassess spending priorities. Problems the audit identifies weren’t caused by unanticipated concrete failures, but by deliberate decisions to skimp on maintenance and avoid dealing with deteriorating bridges.
Lack of money isn’t an excuse. Seattle’s budget grew 37% since 2015. Voters also approved a $930 million transportation levy in 2015, around 45% of which was for maintenance.
That levy was a red flag, however. It highlighted how City Hall was putting less emphasis on maintenance — the previous levy was 67% for maintenance — and opting to spend more on other things, including bike and bus lanes.
This should be a concern not just in Seattle, but throughout the Puget Sound region and state of Washington.
Because Seattle is the state’s commercial center and gateway to the Port of Seattle, its streets and bridges are critical to the state’s economy. When its transportation network fails or becomes overly congested, the livelihood of millions of people is affected.
Seattle is also the location of regional hospitals, stadiums and cultural venues used and funded by people beyond city limits, not to mention hundreds of thousands of people commuting to city jobs.
Washington taxpayers are also heavily invested in bridges, tunnels, highways and transit systems centered on downtown Seattle and affected by the performance of Seattle’s street network.
All of this, and the resulting economic activity, gives Seattle outsized influence and tax revenue. In return, City Hall must be a responsible steward of its infrastructure so it functions well as the regional hub.
Yet that’s not happening.
Not only has the city drastically underfunded bridge maintenance, it’s done a poor job reporting specific, granular bridge maintenance needs, according to the audit.
Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration is taking steps to address issues like reporting and organizational problems. City officials also deserve credit for moving quickly to close the West Seattle Bridge and close the drifting pier.
New City Councilmember Alex Pedersen deserves kudos for requesting the audit after the West Seattle Bridge closure. It gives the council facts and improvements to consider, and has already prompted change at the Department of Transportation.
Yet the situation demands more, including a new mindset at City Hall and an authentic effort, starting with the next budget.
Officials face difficult spending choices given revenue declines. Still, they must find ways to increase bridge maintenance to levels called for by in-house experts, to avoid further deterioration and catastrophes. That should have been a higher priority than fancy new things like costly streetcars and foot rests for bicyclists downtown.
Shortcomings were bad enough that the federal government in 2019 warned Seattle it could fail federal inspection, jeopardizing tens of millions of grant dollars, according to the audit.
The audit notes widespread deterioration. Two heavily used structures, the Magnolia and University bridges, are known to be in “poor” condition — worse than the West Seattle Bridge was rated before its emergency closure.
Only 22 of the city’s 77 bridges are in “good” condition. From 2010 to 2019, the conditions of six bridges improved while 15 worsened.
In addition to safety concerns, adequate bridge maintenance is needed for credibility. Seattle must convince taxpayers it’s a responsible steward of public dollars and infrastructure.
That was already a hurdle after City Hall fell short on promises of the $930 million Move Seattle levy, despite its vaguely defined project list.
Now the city is likely to seek regional help funding West Seattle Bridge costs. Willingness to help fix that bridge — and the next one to fail — dwindles if Seattle won’t fully fund maintenance.
Yes, the poor state of infrastructure nationally is a concern. It should be addressed by Congress and the next president as part of economic recovery spending.
That’s still no excuse for one of the best-funded municipalities in America to shirk basic maintenance responsibilities.
Seattle cannot afford to let maintenance slip further and risk another bridge failure. Fully fund maintenance without further ado.
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