The sudden failure of the West Seattle Bridge is a regional crisis Seattle will be unable to fix by itself.
Neighborhood mobility is the primary concern. But years of repair and congestion will also jeopardize a shipping and industrial area around the bridge that’s critical to the Northwest’s economy, especially as it looks to preserve and grow jobs during the recovery.
This demands regional cooperation to minimize negative effects on the city’s southwest quadrant and optimize the replacement structure. It also requires city officials to rehabilitate Seattle’s disappointing record on many transportation projects in recent years.
Even with most people at home, West Seattle traffic delays are causing problems for residents and employers. Congestion and construction impacts will be dire once the economy resumes. This comes as Seattle’s flagship marine facility, Terminal 5 adjacent to the bridge, is being upgraded to handle larger cargo ships.
Seattle was right to convene a technical panel for advice. But the city has work ahead to assure residents and the region that it can successfully lead the state’s next massive infrastructure project.
Port of Seattle Commission President Peter Steinbrueck, a former Seattle City Council member, made a good suggestion to this editorial board: Form a regional task force to lead the replacement strategy.
“We can’t rely solely on the city to solve the problems at hand here that are huge, we have to work together,” he said.
Seattle has a surplus of task forces, but regional guidance is needed. That’s especially true if the project becomes a joint effort with Sound Transit, King County, the port and state.
Sound Transit is preparing to build a parallel bridge for light rail. Combining them makes sense if it saves money and doesn’t reduce the corridor’s capacity for either general-purpose traffic or mass transit. The risk is this complexity would result in delays and budget creep; Seattle was angling for higher spending on Sound Transit’s West Seattle route before the bridge failure.
A port contribution might be justified since the corridor is vital to industry, including 100,000 Duwamish area jobs.
But port resources are constrained by the downturn. It’s now considering which of its own projects to defer, including a third cruise-ship facility at Terminal 46. Massive airport projects funded by airline fees are facing a bind with air traffic shriveled.
Seattle bridge inspectors deserve praise for identifying the risks and closing the bridge. They likely saved lives and prevented a catastrophe like the 1940 Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse and the 1990 sinking of the Interstate 90 floating bridge. Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration was decisive, and is pursuing federal funding and coordinating traffic management plans.
Still, that doesn’t absolve City Hall for failures to adequately maintain bridges and roads for years.
Despite years of prosperity and abundant revenue, Seattle entered 2020 with a deep backlog of maintenance and repair needs. That’s largely because of leadership failures to resist special-interest pressure and keep projects on budget.
Then there are broken transportation promises, notably Seattle’s pledge to replace the Magnolia Bridge after the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake put it at risk of collapse. After shoring that bridge and settling on a replacement plan, city leaders turned their back, deferring the rebuild indefinitely. That’s a cautionary tale as Seattle considers spending tens of millions on a temporary West Seattle Bridge fix.
More recently, a federal investigation into Seattle’s transportation spending was launched. Subpoenas in December suggest it’s related to outrageous cost overruns on a yet-to-be-built streetcar extension. Design costs alone ballooned from $1.85 million to $14.3 million in four years.
One step to restoring trust is an audit of citywide bridge maintenance, requested last week by new City Councilmember Alex Pedersen. That should be done expeditiously to inform decisions about overall bridge needs. Also encouraging: Seattle now employs an auditor who previously investigated the 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis.
Regardless of bridge problems, Seattle, like municipalities around the world, is facing drastic budget cuts with discretionary revenue falling perhaps 15% next year. That’s a rude awakening for a free-spending city that will now be forced to prioritize maintenance and repairs over fancy new things.
The West Seattle Bridge now tops the list. Seattle must involve regional governance bodies in guiding restoration of this vital transportation corridor as quickly and efficiently as possible.