Millions in repairs required for Seattle’s historic drawbridges

The High Price of Passage

Millions in repairs required for Seattle’s historic drawbridges

The University Bridge, one of four historic drawbridges spanning the Lake Washington Ship Canal in Seattle. (Mike Linksvayer/Flickr/Public Domain)

As the city already faces down a $72 million bill to rehabilitate the epic headache known as the West Seattle Bridge, transportation officials in Seattle revealed earlier this week that three of the city’s centenarian bascule bridges, along with a newer moveable bridge, also require urgent maintenance to the tune of $7.8 million.

Numbering four in total, Seattle’s steel-decked, double-leaf drawbridges are industrious and emblematic, if not patience-testing, infrastructural workhorses that connect neighborhoods bisected by the Lake Washington Ship Canal while allowing maritime traffic to move between the freshwater lake and the inland sea that flank the isthmian city. Per Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) figures cited by the Seattle Times, the city’s drawbridges are collectively raised and lowered more than 14,000 times annually, with the ship canal bridges with lower clearances, particularly the Fremont Bridge, seeing much more action than others.

Spanning 502-feet across the Fremont Cut (the Lake Washington Ship Canal is actually a series of canals, locally referred to as cuts, and other bodies of water) at a clearance of just 30 feet, the Fremont Bridge opened in 1917 as the first of Seattle’s four ship canal drawbridges and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. It is also one of three bridges identified by SDOT as being in need of immediate maintenance along with the Salmon Bay-spanning Ballard Bridge (also 1917) and the University Bridge (1919), which crosses Portage Bay near the University of Washington. (The towers of both the Fremont and University bridges have served as artist studios as of late). The city’s fourth historic ship canal drawbridge, the Montlake Bridge (1925), was not identified as being in need of work.

Joining the list alongside the trio of aging ship canal drawbridges is the Spokane Street Bridge (1991), a hydraulically-powered concrete double-leaf swing bridge also known as the West Seattle Low-Rise Bridge. After substantial cracks were discovered in the heavily trafficked West Seattle High Rise Bridge in March 2020 leading to its immediate (and ongoing) closure, access to its lower counterpart was restricted for several months before reopening to general traffic.

Among the projects that need to happen in order for the bridges to continue to open and close safely are, among other things: new traffic gates and backup generators, asphalt slab repairs, updated drive motor control systems, operator safety upgrades, and work on the control tower sewer system.

The list of urgent repair needs, some being more high-priority than others, was compiled by SDOT at the request of Seattle City Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who chairs the council’s Transportation and Utilities Committee. As noted by the Times, the council has largely avoided investing significant funds in long-overdue bridge preservation efforts, instead opting to devote money to “other transportation services and safety work.”

Following the costly and highly disruptive West Seattle Bridge debacle/closure that Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan referred to as a “surprise crisis” before declaring the situation a civil emergency last July, all eyes, it would seem, have been on Seattle drawbridges. Pedersen believes that the city needs to urgently act in making repairs to the city’s oldest and most vulnerable of them.

“The very least they could do is replace the aging components that prevent our movable bridges from breaking down,” Pedersen told the Times. “The cost is only $8 million to replace those vital parts and I believe it’s a wise investment to make sure we don’t have another bridge out of commission.”

Seattle is home to a total of 124 bridges, including its famous floating pontoon bridges that carry traffic over Lake Washington. Per an audit conducted last year, the city should be spending $34 million each year on bridge repairs, upgrades, regular maintenance, and on. Over the last decade, the city doled out just $6.6 annually on bridge-related fixes. However, the figure for 2021 has already shot up to $9.5 million, according to the Times.

Pedersen has proposed allocating a portion of the city’s $230 million in federal pandemic relief grants to mending and modernizing ailing (and potentially unsafe) Seattle bridges.