Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan was right to order the immediate closure of the West Seattle Bridge on Monday, after inspectors found potential structural problems.
Even so, the abrupt closure of Seattle’s busiest city-owned roadway raises troubling questions about the city’s commitment to basic infrastructure maintenance.
City officials must explain why a relatively new bridge, opened in 1984, is facing major structural problems so soon. Cracks and water intrusion are to be expected on all busy bridges in Seattle, so how did this get so bad?
The West Seattle Bridge closure, combined with the financial crisis now facing Seattle and everywhere else, should also prompt the city to reassess its priorities. Preserving core infrastructure and capacity must be a top priority. That will require political backbone to defer or even cancel some less essential street projects, to prevent abrupt closures of any other major corridors.
In recent years, the city fell short in this regard. Maintenance and bridge work promised to voters with the 2015 Move Seattle levy was partly reduced or canceled, while spending on some added projects was drastically over budget.
That’s left both of the city’s peninsulas, West Seattle and Magnolia, connected primarily by dangerous bridges. West Seattle’s bridge handles more traffic and will get top priority. Meanwhile the Magnolia Bridge’s deficiencies have been known for decades, a replacement was in progress and City Hall balked at the price tag.
City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle, is rightly pressing for more clarity around the timeline of bridge inspections, which federal regulations are at play and the status of inspections on all 69 city bridges subject to those standards.
Herbold notes that the West Seattle Bridge isn’t included in the list of bridges needing seismic work in a 2018 work plan. She’s also trying to deduce whether analysis of the West Seattle Bridge had been delayed for any reason.
The Seattle Department of Transportation should promptly and clearly answer these questions.
When the West Seattle Bridge opened in 1984, bridges would have been designed to last at least 50 years, said David Goodyear, a private bridge engineering expert in Olympia.
Goodyear had not yet seen the inspection reports but doubts the bridge was overloaded. “The bridge as it was originally designed can carry all the load and then some,” he said.
As Seattle answers questions about the bridge closure and moves to quickly repair it, officials also need to look forward to the possibility of federal infrastructure spending, as part of future stimulus planning.
Competition among cities and states for such funding will be fierce, with a nationwide backlog of maintenance. But Seattle’s economic importance to the state and nation, and its tremendously expensive infrastructure challenges, make it a strong candidate for support.