Even as municipal budgets strain under the COVID-19 recession, Seattle may wind up shifting $70 million in city money for emergency shoring, traffic control and engineering to deal with the cracked West Seattle highrise bridge through next spring.
The money would be raised through an “interfund loan” to be repaid by other city sources, according to legislation that was introduced to the City Council this week.
After that, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) says it needs to borrow $100 million through a bond sale, followed by another internal loan. All together, SDOT anticipates it will rack up between $160 million and $225 million in bridge-related expenses by the end of 2021.
That money wouldn’t cover construction of a new bridge.
But the nine-figure outlay does include stabilization work, street improvements to handle detour traffic, emergency repairs, monitoring of both the high and low bridges, and the first phase of engineering for a partial or full rebuild, the city says.
SDOT didn’t provide a breakdown of costs or a debt-profile chart.
The financial patchwork is being introduced as crews from Kraemer North America begin to apply carbon-fiber wrap to the bridge’s hollow concrete girders, to be followed by steel cables that tighten the girders. That’s a first step, to prevent a collapse.
Charcoal-colored patches are taking shape this week in two of the four weak areas. SDOT compares these to applying a cast for a broken bone.
SDOT hopes to recommend by October whether the 36-year-old bridge should be repaired, or be demolished and replaced, mobility director Heather Marx said Wednesday at a community task-force meeting.
Barbara Moffat, a veteran engineer who co-chairs SDOT’s separate West Seattle Bridge technical advisory panel, said repairs are possible. Tests this spring, including those using radar, found that internal rebar and tensioning steel aren’t corroded. The city might regain 15 years of bridge use by adding more steel cables to seal the cracks, consultants predicted in July.
The debt plan was first mentioned Friday by Councilmember Lisa Herbold of West Seattle, in her weekly blog.
The 2021 bridge bonds would be repaid by redirecting a portion of future real estate excise taxes, which the Council legislation proposes. Otherwise, the combination of bridge costs and lost tax revenue due to the coronavirus-caused economic collapse would threaten general fund money for other city services, a staff analysis warns.
What’s unknown is whether the real estate market will keep generating enough money to meet the city’s capital needs and wants.
Seattle’s real estate excise tax (REET), at $500 per $100,000 of value when properties are sold, would yield $83 million this year in pre-COVID estimates. State law allows cities to spend the money for capital projects, which in Seattle includes waterfront parks, city office renovations and fire stations, for example.
Affordable housing subsidies became eligible last year, and Seattle will spend $25 million in REET for those.
SDOT closed the highrise bridge on March 23 when existing cracks suddenly accelerated. The city has said traffic could return in 2022 after repairs, or later if the bridge is rebuilt.
In late July, the city released six diagrams that show a spectrum of repair and replacement possibilities. These range from propping up the weak midspan with steel beams, to last three years, to demolishing the 1984 bridge to create an all-new steel truss or cable-supported bridge, lasting 75 years.
The city is now working to install automated traffic-enforcement cameras on the lower two-lane swing bridge by September, which will limit use to buses, freight, emergency vehicles, longshore workers and a few other users with special permits.
On a parallel track, SDOT is trying to reduce the share of morning commuters who drive off the West Seattle peninsula, from 81% to 35%, to cope with losing seven lanes on the bridge.
July surveys of West Seattle and Duwamish River residents found that 49% of respondents are teleworking and 23% say they’ll keep doing so after the COVID-19 pandemic eases. But more than 80% of respondents were white, leading some task-force members to doubt the results.