West Seattle Bridge closure declared civil emergency

Crack Crisis

West Seattle Bridge closure declared civil emergency

Less than 40 years old, the West Seattle Bridge, a crucial transportation link, needs to be repaired or replaced. (SounderBruce/ Flickr)

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who has a lot on her proverbial plate right now, has officially proclaimed the ongoing closure of the failing, crack-ridden West Seattle Bridge as a civil emergency and, as such, is requesting emergency state and federal funding that will aid in either replacing the bridge or bolstering repair and strengthening efforts that would allow it to reopen to vehicular traffic post haste. This is the first time in Seattle history that a work of infrastructure has been subject to a civil emergency proclamation, although other civil emergencies have been declared this year due to the COVID-19 crisis and the city’s still-active protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

Although Seattle is home to a dizzying multitude of bridges of all sizes and types, including the longest floating bridge in the world, the West Seattle Bridge, a tall and lengthy cantilevered segmental span erected in the early 1980s to replace a bascule predecessor that was struck by a cargo ship in 1978, is the city’s busiest. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, it accommodated an average of 100,000 vehicles and 25,000 public transit riders per day. Spanning the Duwamish River, a bustling maritime highway, it serves as a crucial link between West Seattle and the rest of the city. Located southwest of downtown Seattle, West Seattle is a relatively isolated peninsular patchwork of over a dozen, park-studded neighborhoods that maintains a largely low-key suburban flavor. West Seattleites have long relished the area’s considerable remove from the rest of Seattle (and, historically, the lower housing prices that came along with this remove) and relied on the West Seattle Bridge—officially renamed as the Jeannette Williams Bridge in 2009 after a city council member—as the fastest and most reliable access point to downtown.

This all changed in March of this year when large and severe cracks were found in the relatively young bridge, prompting an immediate, temporary closure. (Cracks were also found in 2013 but were not significant enough to warrant the bridge’s closure.) While there are other ways to travel between West Seattle and the rest of the city, these local detour routes have been plagued by snarled traffic since the bridge’s closure. If repaired, the bridge is expected to reopen in 2022 at the earliest although Durkan’s emergency declaration could potentially speed the process along by hastening the permitting and contract procurement processes.

Referring to the West Seattle Bridge as “a lifeline to the local and regional transportation network” that “directly impacts critical maritime and freight industries,” a recent press statement released by Durkan’s office went on to explain that the ongoing closure of the at-risk-of-collapse span “will disrupt travel and commerce for many years and may have adverse health consequences for people in the South Seattle area” due to motorists taking alternate routes to and from the West Seattle through areas not equipped to accommodate such high levels of traffic. This, of course, will only increase once regular commuting resumes post-pandemic.

Said Durkan in the statement:

“Our cities are facing a series of unprecedented crises, including rising COVID-19 cases and a significant economic crisis. At the same time, residents, workers, and businesses have been deeply impacted by the closure of the West Seattle Bridge—the City’s busiest bridge. As SDOT continues to mitigate traffic impacts and stabilize the bridge while evaluating repair and replace options, this emergency proclamation will give Seattle the tools we need to expedite permitting and procurement, and strengthen our efforts to receive state and federal funding.”

Per KUOW, officials with the Seattle Department of Transportation have been busy studying whether or not a new bridge is the only path forward. An advisory panel of engineers told city DOT officials last week that, based on the limited information available to them, repairing the ailing bridge is not “infeasible or economically unviable.” The costs attached to each option, however, are unknown. A cost-benefit analysis is currently underway, and the results should be available by the fall. The cost of a tunnel under the Duwamish River is also being considered. Meanwhile, as reported by KIRO Radio, the city is working with West Seattle neighborhoods along with impacted areas in the Duwamish Valley to create traffic mitigation plans that would ease grueling, detour-related congestion during this “surprise crisis.

Community leaders have largely praised Durkan for her decision to elevate this far-reverberating transportation mess to civil emergency status. “The Mayoral Proclamation of Civil Emergency tells the rest of the City and the region that the West Seattle High-Rise Bridge closure is a life-impacting event of epic proportion for thousands of people, and that it is not business as usual in West Seattle until the bridge connection is restored,” said Deb Barker of the West Seattle Bridge Community Task Force Member. “I thank Mayor Durkan for acknowledging the reality of the emergency situation and signing this important document.”