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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

In response to West Seattle Bridge closure, city to audit maintenance and spending on its aging bridges

Several work vehicles are parked atop the West Seattle Bridge following an emergency closure several weeks earlier, Wednesday, April 15, 2020, in Seattle. The bridge, a 590-foot long span that arches 140 feet above the Duwamish Waterway, will remain closed to traffic at least until 2022 because of the prolonged efforts needed to first brace and then repair the cracking concrete main span, the city now predicts. The bridge is the city's busiest with an average of 100,000 vehicles and 25,000 transit riders daily before the coronavirus pandemic dramatically decreased traffic. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
By Mike Lindblom Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Last month’s emergency shutdown of the West Seattle Bridge prompted Seattle City Council member Alex Pedersen to request an audit of the city’s 124 bridges, he said Thursday.

Pedersen, who chairs the council’s Transportation and Utilities Committee, said City Auditor David G. Jones will compile data about maintenance spending and comparisons to peer cities.

“In a city surrounded by several waterways, the bridges are the backbone of the city’s infrastructure, for residents and the economy,” Pedersen said. “The rapid decline of the West Seattle Bridge underscores the need for the city and the public to have an understanding of the condition of bridges throughout Seattle, including preventive maintenance and best practices.”

Three of the city’s busiest crossings – the Ballard, Fremont and University bridges – are steel drawspans built in 1917 to coincide with the opening of the ship canal between Lake Washington and Puget Sound.

Matt Donahue, roadway structures director for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), said two years ago the Council should be allocating $80 million a year toward bridge maintenance and major repairs, or about five times the usual spending.

The city does have some projects underway, including a seismic upgrade of the 15th Avenue Northeast bridge over Cowen Park in Pedersen’s district, and about 15 other seismic upgrades planned through 2023. Contractors are building a new Sodo bridge over train tracks at South Lander Street, and replacing a wood-supported Fairview Avenue bridge at Eastlake.

The cracked West Seattle Bridge remains closed until at least 2022, and the city has few options to add capacity quickly. No funding source is identified for a possible nine-figure repair bill, or even the $33 million needed for urgent safety bracing and traffic control this year.

This weekend, SDOT will repave a crumbling five-way intersection near the west side of the smaller low-level bridge and revise the lane layouts before Gov. Jay Inslee’s coronavirus stay-at-home order eases, presumably later this spring, and congestion worsens.

The audit requested Thursday is not a forensic investigation of West Seattle Bridge damage, which first appeared as small cracks in 2013, or the decisions made by SDOT officials since then.

“SDOT’s been very responsive and transparent regarding the West Seattle Bridge,” Pedersen said. “This is more of a citywide look at bridges in general.”

Besides spending levels, Pedersen’s letter to the auditor also asks for a review showing which bridges are at highest risk of failure.