In explaining her decision to repair, rather than replace, the cracked West Seattle Bridge, Mayor Jenny Durkan offered a political calculus.
Given the partisan realities of the U.S. Senate, she wasn’t confident the city could get the money needed to replace the bridge any time soon. Combine that with uncertainties about the timing of environmental studies and “I could not look the voters and people of Seattle in the eye and say we’d be back on that bridge in three years,” Durkan said Thursday.
Instead, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) plans $47 million in repairs in hopes of reopening the bridge in 2022, a faster timeline than building a new structure.
The decision takes pressure off city and federal lawmakers to deliver hundreds of millions of dollars for a new bridge. But it will still leave City Hall looking for ways to cover an array of expenses for years to come.
The city has already pledged $150 million for bridge-related work. With repairs, the bridge is expected to last another 15 to 40 years and will need frequent inspections.
Durkan said she will look for state and federal funds to repair the bridge, but the city is “prepared to move forward even if we don’t get it.”
“We are ready to assist the city in the application process so they have the resources and support necessary to successfully make these repairs,” Jayapal said in a statement.
Sen. Patty Murray’s office said she has been in touch with the city about the bridge and would work to find funding.
SDOT is spending much more than the estimated $47 million repair cost. Add to that about $20 million for emergency stabilization work already since March, along with $10 million for repairs to the lower swing bridge’s underwater foundations, pivot assemblies and aging girders, according to SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe. Perhaps the largest piece is “traffic mitigation,” at a cost of $50 million.
Much of that hasn’t been budgeted yet, and would include more transit such as buses or water taxis, said Heather Marx, city mobility director. But other parts are already known, including $6 million in safety and traffic flow projects where detoured traffic is flooding the neighborhoods, including South Park and Georgetown.
The City Council has already agreed to fund $70 million for West Seattle Bridge response this year, money borrowed from a city construction and inspections fund and real estate taxes. That would be repaid using a $100 million bond sale in 2021. Bonds would be backed by future real estate tax revenues, while yielding $30 million additional for related work. And then, the city’s capital improvement plan calls for $50 million more in bonds in 2022, Councilmember Lisa Herbold said Thursday.
That’s a total of $150 million, the lion’s share of SDOT’s previous estimate of $160 million to $226 million over two years.
Committing real estate taxes to pay back the bonds bets on the city’s real estate market continuing to generate those funds.
The City Council has also been debating how to boost spending on maintenance for the city’s aging bridges. A new $20 car-tab fee would raise about $3.6 million next year and $7.2 million in future years, but council members are split on whether that money should be funneled to bridge maintenance or remain open for other needs.
Durkan declined to say Thursday whether she thinks the car-tab money should fund bridge maintenance.
Other potential funding sources exist, but look unlikely for now.
After the city’s Move Seattle property tax levy expires in 2024, a new levy could theoretically focus more on paying for bridge maintenance. But that would face skepticism from those urging the city to respond to climate change by spending more on transit and other alternatives to driving.
Durkan once promised downtown tolling, known as congestion pricing, which her administration said would require a public vote. That plan now appears to be on hold, and SDOT isn’t currently proposing tolling as part of its repair scenario.