A recent poll showed Seattle voters rank the city’s deteriorating bridges as a top-tier quality-of-life issue, right alongside crime and homelessness. Yet Mayor Bruce Harrell has not in his first 100-plus days in office shown the necessary urgency to get out front of this problem.
Harrell’s dismissal of a City Council proposal to fast-track bridge repairs by selling $100 million in bonds, borrowing while interest rates are low, requires a better rationale than his office has deigned to provide. The need is truly dire. Emergency repairs to the West Seattle Bridge reportedly have the span, closed 25 months ago, en route to a midsummer opening.
But many other vulnerabilities threaten mobility daily. The 103-year-old University Bridge was stuck open for two days last November. Ballard Bridge, two years older, got stuck April 6 and stranded motorists for two hours. The Interstate 5 Ship Canal Bridge shed concrete chunks like dandruff last December, shutting down park space.
Yet Harrell’s team shrugged off the council’s strategy to finance faster maintenance and repairs. A curt note from interim Seattle Department of Transportation Director Kristen Simpson claimed the city’s big, necessary work can wait until “late 2023” and the expected completion of a long-term study, so the work plan can reveal which projects to prioritize.
Where is the urgency? The mayor’s decision effectively tells residents to just sit in traffic behind stuck-open bridges while the deeper problem is studied. As if this is a brand-new problem to be understood and measured out.
This defies belief because of what voters have been told going back years. In September 2020, after the West Seattle Bridge’s emergency closure, the city auditor found Seattle had been underspending on bridge maintenance. A look at average spending over the prior 14 years showed Seattle spending about $6.6 million per year when the needed outlay was $34 million — minimum. The auditor recommended then that the city make a bridge-repair spending plan; SDOT responded that it would conjure up one “no later than the end of 2023.” Some urgency.
Last fall, City Council members tried to spur this work, demanding that then-SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe produce a list of what $75 million could fix on bridges. That list exists, but Harrell’s decision slow-walks the timing until the big master plan is available. That just happens to be shortly before the Move Seattle transportation property tax expires in 2024, unless voters renew it.
This fix-it-later song has looped so many times voters ought to have a headache. Way back in 2015, the original nine-year Move Seattle levy promised “seismically reinforcing 16 vulnerable bridges” as a top priority for what was sold to voters as a $930 million spending plan. Prominent on that list: the Ballard and Fremont Bridges, fixes still not done ostensibly, staff says, due to ballooning price estimates.
Public works projects get more expensive with time for a host of reasons. Delayed maintenance can make problems snowball; real estate and construction costs rise. A series of expected interest-rate hikes is all but certain to make debt service on future bond sales more expensive than it is today.
Voters weary of watching their bridges crumble need to know their mayor has a definite timeline for getting this longstanding problem under control, and must hold him accountable if he punts like his predecessors.