During a routine inspection of the Fourth Avenue South Bridge in late 2017, Seattle Department of Transportation crews noticed moderate to severe cracking. There was fraying in multiple places, most notably on the northern and southern approach slabs — the segments transitioning from roadway to bridge. While portions of the Sodo bridge were in fine condition, the deterioration was enough to rate its sufficiency as “functionally obsolete.”
In response, SDOT reduced northbound traffic by one lane and directed trucks traveling southbound to the inside lane.
“Detailed analysis of the strength of the concrete indicates that the cross beam cannot safely carry the heaviest truck combination that could occur on the bridge,” an SDOT staffer said in an email to Sodo stakeholders in early 2018.
Three and a half years later, the bridge is still unrepaired. Traffic is still reduced. Cones lining the northbound lane have become semi-permanent fixtures.
The problem is largely jurisdictional. The bridge traverses the Argo railyard, which is under the purview of the Union Pacific Railroad company. As a result, any work done by contractors from under the bridge requires its approval.
“We have designed a repair but now are waiting on [railroad] permission to perform the work,” the SDOT staffer said in the 2018 email.
To date, the city and the rail company have still not come to an agreement.
“The main driver of the delay — because it’s taken longer than expected — is around the coordination,” said CJ Holt, manager of capital projects with the Seattle Department of Transportation. “It’s just a really challenging place to do work.”
In early 2021, former SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe notified industrial and Sodo interests that Union Pacific is requiring all bridge work to be performed from above so it won’t impact rail activity. “As you all know, this substantially limits the construction means and methods, extends the timeline, and would thus result in increased costs,” he wrote in an email.
Holt put a finer point on working from above: “That’s just not feasible due to the type of work that we need to do,” he said.
Robynn Tysver, communications manager with Union Pacific, said the rail company is working closely with SDOT. She said Union Pacific signed off on a previous proposal but rejected a subsequent “modified” plan from the department, which didn’t meet its clearance requirements to allow freight rail traffic moving for customers.
“We remain committed to working with SDOT to safely allow bridge work while interstate commerce continues flowing into and out of Union Pacific’s Argo Rail Yard,” Tysver said.
Holt said the city is still pursuing an agreement to complete the work. There’s been progress but not a final permit.
Fourth Avenue South is an important route for freight. Todd Biesold, CFO of Merlino Foods, which has its office next to the bridge, said First and Fourth avenues are main corridors. Biesold joked the lane reduction has been OK for his business, as traffic has been lighter.
But, he said, “From a macro standpoint, it turns into a mess … It forces the freight onto other routes. I think from a logistics standpoint, anytime a truck has to go out of its way, it’s costly. It costs time and money.”
Erin Goodman, executive director of the Sodo Business Improvement Area, called Fourth a “release valve” that absorbs diverted traffic from other parts of the city. She suspects that’s especially true since the closure of the West Seattle Bridge.
“When Fourth Avenue gets messed up, it impacts the whole city,” she said.
Seattle Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who chairs the transportation committee and has pressed for greater prioritization of bridge infrastructure, said he understands the situation is complex.
But three years in, he said, it merits SDOT working harder to get Union Pacific to be accommodating, and potentially escalating the issue to the congressional delegation.
“The organization is just not focused enough on the bridge infrastructure that connects all of our communities,” he added.
Before the lane reduction, the bridge saw around 17,000 daily users in both directions, according to SDOT. That dropped by 25% when the closures took effect.
Holt estimated the repair cost in the $6 to $7 million range. He’s hopeful construction can begin sometime next year.
Just 29% of Seattle’s bridges are in good condition, according to a 2020 audit. Conservatively, the city should be spending about $34 million a year on bridge maintenance, the audit said, but was averaging only $6.6 million. Council members debated dedicating dollars from a new $20 car-tab fee for bridges, but opted instead to spend the money on safety improvements. Earlier this year, Mayor Bruce Harrell balked at a council proposal to issue a $100 million bond for bridge maintenance, saying there weren’t enough shovel-ready projects and no clear source to repay the debt.
At the same time, SDOT scaled back its promises to upgrade 16 bridges vulnerable to earthquakes, delaying five due to ballooning costs. Among those in need of seismic upgrades: the Fourth Avenue South Bridge over the Argo railyard.
Holt said his current focus is on necessary repairs. Making the bridge earthquake safe is a separate, and vastly more expensive, project.