The ongoing concrete drivers strike could delay the reopening of the West Seattle Bridge

Waiting For A Cure

The ongoing concrete drivers strike could delay the reopening of the West Seattle Bridge

The shuttered West Seattle Bridge in April 2020. (SounderBruce/Flickr/CC BY-SA 4.0)

The closure of the West Seattle Bridge, a cantilevered segmental span erected in the early 1980s across the industrialized Duwamish Waterway that ranks as the busiest bridge in bridge-heavy Seattle, could drag out longer than anticipated due to delays from an ongoing strike by local concrete mixer truck drivers. In addition to time-sensitive work at the West Seattle Bridge, affected construction projects across Seattle and greater King County include Sound Transit’s light rail extension, the expansion of Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, multiple affordable housing projects, and various efforts overseen by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) including citywide ADA improvements like curb ramp and sidewalk installation, according to the city.

Thousands of construction workers have been laid off since the strike began.

Now in its third month, the industry-wide work stoppage began in early December when more than 300 concrete truck drivers and plant workers represented by Teamsters Local 174 commenced an industry-wide unfair labor practice strike against six Washington state concrete suppliers. (This followed a single strike at Gary Merlino Construction initiated November 19.) As noted by local news source KIRO, negotiations between the union and employers have largely stalled in recent weeks although talks resumed via federal mediation today, February 24. Union members have accused employers of refusing to negotiate in good faith.  (For the latest from the union side, Teamsters Local 174 has been continually providing updates regarding the strike and picketing activities via its website.)

Although the impact of the strike on regional construction activities has been, as mentioned, widespread, delays impacting the West Seattle Bridge have been particularly headline-grabbing, largely due to the fact that the vital and relatively young high-rise bridge has now been indefinitely shuttered to traffic for nearly two years. On March 23, 2020, large and severe cracks were observed at the bridge by Matt Donahue, division director of roadway structures with SDOT, prompting its immediate closure and creating a costly, traffic-snarling nightmare for the city during the early and already chaotic months of the pandemic. As previously reported, the cracks, which are the result of creep in the bridge’s concrete, were first noted by inspectors in 2013. Over the next several years, however, conditions deteriorated to the point that a total shut-down was ordered.

Prior to the pandemic, the West Seattle Bridge accommodated an average of 100,000 vehicles per day. Located southwest of downtown Seattle, West Seattle is a relatively isolated peninsular patchwork of over a dozen neighborhoods that maintains a low-key suburban flavor. West Seattleites have long relished the area’s removal from the rest of Seattle (and, historically, the lower housing prices) 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. The severing of this access point prompted former Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to declare the ongoing closure as a civil emergency in July 2020, marking the first time in the city’s history that a work of infrastructure has been subject to such a proclamation. In a statement released at the time, Durkan referred to the bridge “a lifeline to the local and regional transportation network.”

Since then, repair and reinforcement work at the West Seattle Bridge—a project that is expected to add 40 more years to the bridge’s life—has been steadily underway with plans to reopen the span this summer. (The much-talked-about alternative, scrapping repairs and building an entirely new bridge, was ultimately nixed.) That timeline, however, might be pushed back as SDOT awaits the delivery of about 30 truckloads of concrete that needs to be poured and set. Specifically, that concrete will be used for the massive blocks that will collectively anchor 46 miles of steel cables inside the bridge per local NBC affiliate KING 5 News. Once in place, the concrete takes 28 days to cure—and after that, other work needs to be completed before a roughly 15-day load testing period, after which all seven lanes of the bridge can reopen to traffic (provided, of course, load testing goes as planned).

In addition to the ongoing concrete workers strike, the pandemic and a bout of unusually harsh winter have also slowed progress and left SDOT with no wiggle room–or “float” time— to complete the project by its scheduled delivery date. Per Durkan’s successor, Mayor Bruce Harell, a resolution needed to occur by February 20 for the bridge’s reopening to be delay-free.

“Repair of the West Seattle bridge remains one of the City of Seattle’s highest priorities,” said Harrell at a February 9 news conference. “While the Seattle Department of Transportation, contractors, and community partners have worked tirelessly to keep the West Seattle Bridge reopening on track for mid-2022, this continued strike threatens to delay that schedule.”

“For an on-time opening, concrete companies and workers must return to mediation and reach a fair agreement–further delay and uncertainty is untenable for hundreds of thousands of neighbors across West Seattle, our city, and the entire region,” he added.

Still, there’s optimism that the West Seattle Bridge will reopen early this summer. “June 30 is still a goal. It will be tight,” Adam Dour, project manager for contractor Kraemer North America, recently relayed to The Seattle Times. Initially brought in on an emergency contract, Wisconsin-headquartered Kraemer was awarded the full repair contract for the West Seattle Bridge Program by the SDOT in May 2021.

As negotiations between Teamsters Local 174 and employers resume via mediation, workers have begun building the forms and rebar frames for the anchoring blocks in anticipation of the concrete’s eventual arrival. In addition to prep work for the pouring of concrete, Heather Marx, director of  the West Seattle Bridge Program, explained to King 5 that other work is proceeding as planned during this crucial final phase, including preparations to fill the bridge’s cracks with epoxy. “So we can do a lot of carbon fiber reinforcement and a lot of epoxy crack injection before we need the concrete,” she said. In other words, the project is still very much chugging along at scheduled speed despite the impasse.

“We are just 245 yards–fewer than 30 truckloads–from the finish line,” said District 1 Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle and South Park in a statement earlier this month. “I call on concrete suppliers to reach agreement with Teamsters Local 174 as soon as possible to ensure completion of the West Seattle Bridge repair is as scheduled.”