Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell’s administration has rejected a City Council budget authorization to sell $100 million in bonds to rehabilitate the city’s ailing bridges.

The Seattle Department of Transportation doesn’t have enough projects shovel-ready to spend it this year, said a letter from interim director Kristen Simpson. She said SDOT can try for federal dollars; bridge projects could appear on the next property-tax levy, expected in 2024.

Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who chairs the transportation committee, called those the same bureaucratic excuses that he’s heard for two years. The council passed the bond ordinance last November, as the two-year closure of the cracked West Seattle Bridge illustrated the consequences of bridge failures.

“The decision of the executive branch of our city government to kick the can down the road, yet again, makes it clear that if another Seattle bridge breaks or closes and strands people, freight and transit, the fault would be with the Harrell Administration,” Pedersen declared in a statement Monday. Hours later, Pedersen said “on reflection, that came across as too critical.”

Simpson’s letter said there’s no clear method to repay $100 million in new debt without trimming other services. She suggests awaiting a Roadway Structures Business Practice Upgrade report, due next year, to guide spending policies.

“The Move Seattle Levy expiration in 2024 also provides an opportunity, in upcoming years, to have a broad community conversation about future transportation needs, priorities, and a comprehensive and stable transportation funding strategy,” she added.


The tug of war over bridge money dates to fall 2020, when council members Pedersen, Lisa Herbold and Andrew Lewis proposed earmarking a new $20 car-tab fee — $7.2 million annually — to reduce what a city audit identified as a maintenance backlog of $34 million a year.

But following an SDOT community engagement process, and feedback that bridge spending would shortchange walk-bike needs, council members chose a different tack. They dedicated most of the car-tab fees toward neighborhood safety, but also told then-director Sam Zimbabwe to produce a $75 million bridge work plan to go with a huge bond sale.

“In a city carved by waterways and ravines within a hazardous earthquake zone, we rely on our bridges to connect every community, enable all modes of transportation and sustain our economy. Residents, businesses and workers expect and deserve to have their bridges open and safe, so it’s important to accelerate needed upgrades and repairs to the extent we can,” Pedersen told council members Monday.

The mayor’s office replied late Monday that it’s “fiscally unsound” to park $100 million in the bank and pay debt service this year. “Mayor Harrell hasn’t said ‘no’ to bridge bonds, he’s said ‘not yet.’ “

A year ago, SDOT’s structures division listed $10 million in urgent and unfunded major renovations, such as new electronic drawspan components. Months have passed, but Simpson’s letter said the agency located $6.5 million for that category, plus $8.7 million in ongoing bridge maintenance.

University Bridge remains structurally deficient, with crumbling columns north of the Ship Canal. The Fremont, Ballard and University drawbridges are a century old, while one lane is closed on a weak Fourth Avenue South Bridge above the Argo freight rail yard.


SDOT previously postponed five of 16 seismic projects promised to voters, including Fremont and Ballard Bridge strengthening, when unanticipated foundation costs and inflation sent prices skyrocketing.

Simpson said the city can mix money sources to fund $64.2 million in seismic and repair tasks in the pipeline, plus the already approved $102.7 million high-rise West Seattle Bridge rescue. Her scenario would cover design but not construction at the Ballard and Fremont bridges.

By avoiding $3.1 million in bond interest for 2022, she said the city can afford to renovate those University Bridge piers.

In dwelling on financial risk, Simpson’s letter overlooks a political risk: that SDOT’s updated menu of bridge needs will collide with other community requests — sidewalks, Aurora Avenue improvements, a delayed streetcar, traffic-calming barriers, pothole filling, light-rail tunnels, and more — while planning that 2024 ballot measure.

Pedersen commented, “It’s not good for credibility of the next levy to have unfulfilled bridge promises,” while Jamie Housen, a spokesperson for Harrell, said “he’s committed to addressing this bridge infrastructure, one way or another.”

Councilmember Lewis, whose district includes Magnolia, called Harrell’s decision disheartening for residents hoping to replace the rusty Magnolia Bridge. On the other hand, options there range from $190 million to $420 million — far beyond current budgets.

Seattle Times staff reporter David Kroman contributed to this report.