After more than two years of detours, delays, headaches and hand-wringing, the West Seattle Bridge could finally reopen in September, bringing great relief to the long-suffering residents of Seattle’s southwest peninsula, which has lately felt more like an island.
The Seattle Department of Transportation said Thursday it’s aiming for the week of Sept. 12, when general traffic will be allowed to flow over the mouth of the Duwamish River for the first time since spring 2020.
It’s later than the June 30 date that the city and members of the community task force overseeing the process had hoped for. But a monthslong strike of concrete drivers slowed the repair timeline, as it did to major construction projects across the region.
“I speak for all when I say that we wish the bridge could open safely, sooner,” said Greg Nickels, former Seattle mayor and co-chair of the task force, in a statement. “But we now have a date and can begin planning our lives around it.”
City officials are hedging their bets slightly, warning that in large-scale construction projects, complications can always arise.
“There are things, in the interest of transparency, that could impact that timeline,” Heather Marx, program manager with SDOT, said in a meeting with the community task force Thursday. Possible issues include weather, worker shortages, supply chain issues and testing of the bridge’s stability.
“If those tests come back not good, then clearly we need to continue our work,” she said.
The announcement likely comes as bittersweet news to residents and businesses who have felt stuck, isolated from the rest of the city for the past two years.
On the one hand, it’s a firm date for residents to look forward to and plan around. “It’ll be a great day when we get through the work and come together to commemorate reopening,” said task force co-chair Paulina Lopez.
On the other hand, the date is later than originally planned for. Dan Austin, board chair of the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce, pushed SDOT to move the date forward by any means necessary.
“I can tell you I’ve been working well over 60 hours to try to keep my business afloat,” he said during Thursday’s meeting. “Let’s find a way to get this thing open even a day faster,” he added.
Then-SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe recommended and then-Mayor Jenny Durkan ordered the bridge to close on March 23, 2020, after inspections found diagonal cracks racing up the side. City roadway structures director Matt Donahue saw the cracks move 2 feet in two weeks.
Built in 1984, the bridge’s rapid deterioration was an unwelcome revelation in a city already scrambling to respond to COVID-19 and widespread protests against police brutality.
The consequences of the bridge’s closure were softened only by the decreased traffic from COVID shutdowns. Before the pandemic, the seven-lane bridge could support as many as 100,000 drivers and 20,000 bus riders in a single weekday, numbers that dropped significantly as people started working from home.
Elected officials vacillated between repairing and replacing the bridge. Initial estimates said retrofitting the bridge may add only 10 years to its life span.
But since the $175 million repair work began, crews now expect that the repairs will support the bridge for 30 years.
Crews had hoped to begin pouring the last truckloads of concrete at the beginning of this year. Because of the concrete drivers’ strike, that work was not completed until the end of May.
The work of post-tensioning, which entails using cables to strengthen the bridge from the inside, cannot proceed until concrete fully hardens, which takes about a month.
Three major tasks remain, a spokesperson for SDOT said: Epoxy must be injected into the cracks; carbon-fiber wrapping will be added to increase strength; and the steel-cable post tensioning will compress the concrete.
“Together, these methods will rehabilitate the entire structure, prevent future cracking, and help keep the bridge safe for decades to come,” SDOT said in a news release about the timeline.
West Seattle residents have needed to seek detours or other modes of transportation since the bridge’s closure. Buses and bikes have been allowed to cross the lower level, while the King County Water Taxi shuttles people into downtown Seattle. Drivers, meanwhile, have mostly headed south before turning north into downtown on First Avenue South.
City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, whose southwest district relies heavily on the bridge, said she was still holding out hope that the bridge might reopen this summer. “But I appreciate SDOT’s announcement today,” she said. “It lets us know that we’re close – just three months away.”