The sorry state of many Seattle bridges is an aching infrastructure need deeper than most others. The city ought to take advantage of economic good timing to make a big investment in bridge repair now before more neighborhoods experience West Seattle Bridge-style prolonged emergency closures.
The problem requires immediate attention because the city cheaped out for years on necessary work. A city auditor report in September showed that Seattle spends $6.6 million a year on average to maintain its 77 bridges — but needs to spend an average of at least $34 million, and up to $102 million, to keep them in decent repair. The $14 million for preservation in the 2021 budget is not enough by even the auditor’s most conservative estimate.
Seattle should leverage the $20 vehicle fee increase the council approved in November to issue bonds for bridge repairs, as City Council members Alex Pedersen, Teresa Mosqueda, Lisa Herbold and Andrew Lewis proposed. A fifth council member, Debora Juarez, has voiced support too. The rest of their colleagues should agree to this prudent fiscal maneuver. The proposal would borrow against $7.2 million in annual car-tab fee revenue to make $100 million available to address today’s infrastructure needs, with at least $75 million for bridge fixes.
Clearing maintenance needs is not the most glitzy public use for car-tab fees. New sidewalks and bike paths along vital corridors with scant pedestrian access could provide worthy results. But responsible governance means taking care of the infrastructure that already exists before putting money into buying something else. The improvements are needed now, as are the construction jobs the investment would generate.
Of course, Seattle should continue to invest in connecting its sidewalk grid, and extendbicycle pathways and transit operations to enable more carless commutes. The bonding plan leaves about $25 million available for flexible spending. While some advocates want more funding, bicyclists and bus riders rely on bridges to cross Seattle just like cars and trucks do. Preserving these expensive and vital infrastructure fixtures in a city that spans canals and ravines is necessary, not optional.
Potential state and federal infrastructure help may arrive in coming months, which could help turn a range of proposed transportation improvements into reality. But the council would be wise to advance the bonding-for-bridges proposal to address these pressing local needs for safety and the economy.