After nearly 48 hours stuck upright, Seattle’s University Bridge lowered and reopened to traffic Sunday morning after a few practice runs.

The bridge became stuck Friday morning, and the Seattle Department of Transportation initially estimated repairs would take “a few hours.” But the closure dragged on Saturday, confounding city crews, tangling traffic during Saturday’s Huskies game and once again drawing attention to Seattle’s aging drawbridges. 

The city blamed the closure on an electrical system failure they said occurred Friday morning, but SDOT still does not know the cause of that failure.

The department initially believed the bridge’s malfunction stemmed from burned-out fuses, but when problems continued after parts were replaced, “it became clear there was a deeper electrical issue,” the department said in a statement Sunday.  

To find the location of the failure, “electricians had to trace the full length of each wire until they narrowed down the physical location of the short circuit near the motor control panel for the southern span of the bridge,” SDOT said. Crews searched hundreds of feet of wires, some in hard-to-reach areas.

Around 9 a.m. Sunday, crews opened and closed the bridge several times to test their fix to the electrical problem before reopening the span to traffic. 

Advertising

Bigger questions remain about what caused the malfunction and whether the electrical problem caused any other damage.

“While there is no reason to believe this is the case, electrical damage can create the risk of unseen problems,” SDOT noted in its statement.

“We’re hopeful this sticks, but there’s always some risk it could develop more problems,” SDOT spokesperson Ethan Bergerson said. “We’ll be paying close attention.”

The closure came on a busy weekend, as the Huskies played Saturday afternoon and the Kraken played at Climate Pledge Arena that evening. Officials urged travelers to use light rail and other alternatives.

At Johnny Mo’s Pizzeria, near the southern end of the bridge, takeout and delivery business dropped off by about 50% Friday night, front-of-house manager Ralph Abraham said. 

“A lot of our customer base using DoorDash and Uber Eats must live across the University Bridge,” Abraham said. 

Advertising

But dine-in orders were steady, and the effects weren’t too bad in the end. “When I heard it was going to be up like that at least one entire day — especially Friday, our busiest day — I was rather pessimistic about what that would mean for business,” Abraham said. “But thankfully I was wrong.”

SDOT noted Sunday that the department had “no indication that the electrical issue is related to the structural condition of the bridge.” However, the prolonged closure is likely to once again fuel debates at City Hall about funding for the city’s oldest bridges.

The University Bridge, which carries about 36,000 vehicles a day, is just one of Seattle’s 100-year-old drawbridges in need of millions of dollars in maintenance and improvements. The Ballard Bridge became stuck twice in one month back in December 2019

An audit last year found Seattle spends an average of $6.6 million a year on bridge maintenance — far less than the $34 million SDOT estimates it should be spending just for bridges over 60 years old.  

Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who requested the audit and has pushed to shift more city money to bridge maintenance, said in a statement Saturday the closure should spur council members to boost bridge funding. 

“I want to thank the workers who have been struggling to repair and reopen another broken bridge and to urge all city leaders to give them the help they need to do their jobs to keep all Seattle bridges safe and secure,” Pedersen said. 

Pedersen and several other council members have floated the idea of selling bonds to generate $100 million for bridge maintenance and seismic upgrades