Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has declared the cracked high-rise West Seattle Bridge to be a civil emergency — a move that may increase the odds of winning federal or state money.
The announcement issued Thursday also seeks to accelerate repairs or replacement of the bridge by skipping layers of city regulations governing competitive bidding, budget limits or employment of temporary workers.
The mayor’s declaration should add flexibility to the search for money, said Heather Marx, mobility director for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).
A related city statement mentions federal funding sources off the beaten path, such as port infrastructure development grants and a “building resilient communities” fund. The Port of Seattle plans to reopen its vast Terminal 5 west of the Duwamish Waterway in 2021, bringing hundreds of daily truck trips over the neighboring two-lane swing bridge.
“It raises that profile, when there are many emergencies to go around,” Marx said. “Having an infrastructure emergency in the middle of a global pandemic is difficult enough, and this declaration helps strengthen that effort.”
This month, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., mentioned the shuttered West Seattle Bridge on the House floor, in support of a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill.
“Repairs and possible replacement will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and the people that live in that part of my district, very populated, have no way to get out of that, except from one little place on the south end of that area,” she said.
Another potential funding source is Sound Transit. Many politicians and residents hope the community could save money by combining voter-approved light rail with motor vehicle traffic on the same structure to cross the waterway.
The high bridge served 100,000 vehicle trips and 19,000 bus riders per day, the city says. Thousands now detour 3 miles to the First Avenue South bridge, Jayapal’s “one little place.” It has four lanes each direction, but can’t absorb more traffic without jamming the usual commuters who pour downhill from Burien and SeaTac.
SDOT’s seven-member engineering advisory panel has declared it’s possible to repair the 36-year-old concrete bridge, closed since March 23 because of the dangerous shear cracks. But the panel left open crucial questions, such as how many lanes could be operated on a patched-up span, whether repairs would be affordable, and whether the bridge could survive a severe earthquake.
West Seattle bridge repairs would take at least two years and squeeze maybe a decade of extra life from the span, SDOT has said.
Contractors this week are expected to begin emergency shoring work, using suspended platforms under the 140-foot-high concrete girders to add carbon wrap and steel tightening strands. The work is intended to stabilize the bridge while the city considers whether it should be repaired or replaced.
A 31-member community advisory task force discussed the emergency declaration over the past several weeks as a needed step to help deliver a new bridge or tunnel, for which the city has no funding.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold of West Seattle and Alex Pedersen, chair of the Council’s Transportation & Utilities Committee, issued a statement thanking Durkan for Thursday’s action.
Seattle is now under three emergency orders, following a homeless emergency declared in 2015 and this year’s COVID-19 epidemic.
Seattle Times reporters Heidi Groover and Dan Beekman contributed to this article.