Herbold: West Seattle Bridge closure

Seattle News

Seattle District 1 City Councilmember Lisa Herald shared these insights and question via her email newsletter:

SDOT announced the abrupt closure of the West Seattle Bridge on Monday, March 23rd at 7 p.m., after a bridge inspection showed expanding cracks. SDOT’s notice says “complete closure is required to maintain safety as our top priority.” I received notice of this when the Mayor called me to let me know, three hours before the public announcement.

SDOT’s announcement, linked here, says “Buses, freight and emergency vehicles will be moved to the Spokane Street Bridge, which is also called the “low bridge.” Motorists should use the First Avenue or South Park bridges.” SDOT has since suggested alternate routes for drivers (my office asked SDOT to correct an error in the original version, and they did; thank you to the person contacting my office about this).  Pedestrians and bicyclists can use the low bridge.

The impact on West Seattle cannot be understated. This will impact all West Seattle residents.

I’ve heard from many residents how much of an impact the West Seattle Bridge closure will have, in particular for those living in the northern portion of the peninsula, who lose their key access point, and will need to drive several miles south to the 1st Avenue Bridge to leave or enter West Seattle.

I’ve also heard from residents further south; the closure will also impact their neighborhoods, which will now have significantly more traffic, especially at Highland Park Way SW and SW Holden Street, where there are already significant safety problems at this well-traveled intersection.

My priorities are to do whatever I can to collaborate with SDOT to get the bridge up and running as soon as possible, and to minimize the impact of the closure.

We are also in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic, and Governor Inslee’s shelter in place order. Our first responders, including nurses, firefighters, and police officers are our most important workers. Many live in West Seattle.

I have heard from numerous COVID-19 first responders who live in West Seattle, who must leave the peninsula for work, as well as from an immunology researcher at UW working on COVID-19. Many of them are working overtime in the fight against COVID-19. I have asked SDOT to consider allowing them to use the lower bridge, to minimize the burden of commuting and working long hours to save lives.

I’ve also heard from night shift workers who begin work at, for example, 3 a.m., and asked SDOT whether the lower bridge can be opened to general traffic overnight.

I raised these issues of access for first responders and night shift workers with the Mayor, as well as the possibility, if feasible, of future staged access by other residents.

I’ve asked SDOT about their decision-making process for the lower bridge, and what criteria they will be using for future decisions on the use of the bridge.

I’ve asked what steps SDOT will take for safety at the intersection of Highland Park Way SW and SW Holden, that already have safety problems, and to consider re-timing the signals at the 5-way intersection under the bridge at West Marginal, Spokane and Delridge.

My office has requested that SDOT appeal to the Coast Guard to make fewer bridge openings of the lower level bridge to allow for more buses and cars to cross, as they did in early 2019 when the Alaskan Way Viaduct closed and the SR99 tunnel was not yet open. It’s critically important that bridge openings not restrict emergency and fire vehicles.

I have reached out to Seattle Fire Department (SFD) Chief Scoggins requesting information about SFD’s plans to maintain the level of service provided to West Seattle prior to the bridge closing and how they plan to address possible lack of timely backup resources.

SDOT has been invited to present at the City Council Briefing meeting this coming Monday, March 30th at 9:30 a.m.

I thank King County for increasing water taxi service and quickly planning for alternate transit routes.

My office submitted a preliminary list of questions to SDOT, and continues to develop questions including those sent by District 1 residents.

I’ll have more updates when more information is available.

My questions so far are below; please send me any questions you’d like SDOT to answer.

  • Please explain the decision to not allow cars on the lower bridge.
  • Please describe what analysis SDOT will be conducting to decide when to re-open the Spokane Street (lower) Bridge, and what criteria you will be using.
  • Has SDOT received work from the Coast Guard about flexibility re: times the bridge can remain open w/o or with limited closures?
  • Can SDOT allow vehicle traffic on the lower bridge overnight? I have heard from more than one person whose work shift begins at 3 p.m., when traffic is lighter.
  • I have heard from several COVID-19 first responders (firefighter, ER nurse) who must leave the peninsula for work, and from an immunology researcher at UW working on COVID-19. Could the lower bridge be opened for them?
  • Please provide a timeline of SDOT’s inspections of the West Seattle Bridge that lead to this decision.
  • Please explain SDOT’s procedures for providing information to the Council regarding ongoing inspections for potential significant problems that could lead to closure of major roadways or structures.
  • Southern access points to the peninsula will see significantly increased traffic. What steps will SDOT take for safety at the intersection of Highland Park Way SW and SW Holden, that already have safety problems?
  • Can traffic signals at the 5-way intersection at West Marginal Way and Spokane Street by the Chelan Café be adjusted to better serve new traffic patterns? One constituent said they had to wait through 5 light cycles to get to Spokane Street from West Marginal during the afternoon with relatively light traffic.
  • Can SDOT work to encourage cars traveling east on Roxbury down the hill to South park to turn left onto the onramp to Highway 99 between 7thand 8th Avenue South if they are traveling north, instead of proceeding into South Park?
  • Please describe what actions you are taking to restrict access to the West Seattle Bridge, specifically by people trying to access the closed bridge by foot.

Below are additional questions that get into the weeds of the budget and SDOT notification to the Council of the impacts of changes from the Federal government related to load ratings that led to higher scrutiny, and now closure, of the bridge:

When SDOT completed its November, 2018 Move Levy Workplan, (or levy “reset”), the work plan included 16 bridges for seismic work (section 12 of the report), including several in District 1: Delridge Way SW Bike/Ped Bridge, the north and south Admiral Way bridges, and the Andover Way SW ped bridge (and ironically the 1st Avenue South Bridge that SDOT is directing West Seattle commuters to). It did not include the West Seattle Bridge.

The 2020 SDOT Capital Improvement Program (CIP) budget referenced work on the 16 projects in its listing for Bridge Seismic work. The SDOT CIP noted it was analyzing bridge loads of 69 separate bridges due to 2013 and 2016 federal requirements from the Federal Highway Administration. The March 23 press SDOT release on the bridge closure referred to new 2019 requirements.

  • The 2020-2025 CIP (page 188) references federal changes in 2013 and 2016 to load requirements; today’s press release says, “In 2019, however, the Federal load rating for this type of bridge changed.” When did this change take place?
  • The November 2018 Move Levy Workplan (i.e. levy “re-set”) noted 16 bridges scheduled for seismic improvements from 2019 to 2024; the 2020-2025 SDOT CIP “Bridge Seismic – Phase III) item noted the 16 bridges. Why was the West Seattle Bridge not included in the 16 bridges?
  • How many other, of the 69 bridges subject to the new FHA load requirements, have been triggered for enhanced inspections by bridge integrity specialists to ensure the safety of our city’s bridges?
  • Please provide the most recent list of SDOT’s assessment of Seattle’s bridges (including ratings).

Finally, a word about capital project oversight; the West Seattle Bridge has not been identified as a potential issue in recent reports the Executive has sent to the Council.

In 2018 I sponsored capital project oversight legislation the Council adopted to require enhanced, quarterly reporting from city departments on city capital projects, to ensure the Council received timely updates.

The legislation notes “CIP oversight is a critical function of the Seattle City Council”, and “the Council’s ability to perform effective capital oversight is dependent on access to thorough information and the opportunity to review and process this information in a timely manner.”

The most recent quarterly reports received by the Council, on March 13th, for the 4th quarter of 2019, do not mention the West Seattle Bridge as one of the city’s 200+ capital projects; the bridge is not mentioned in sections on Bridge Seismic work and Bridge Load Rating work, included in the ongoing programs report.

In mid-January city departments sent the Council their proposed list of capital projects for the 2020 “Watch List” for enhanced oversight; the list did not include the West Seattle Bridge.

I have repeatedly requested that the City Budget Office include ongoing programs (e.g. the bridge programs and road paving) in future Watch Lists.

While the City Budget Office has indicated they are theoretically open to doing so, no such programmatic projects have been added in the final list of 2020 Watch List projects. Nonetheless, they do report on the programmatic projects in the ongoing projects list – but just at a summary level, as noted above.

The Council’s resolution requested the Executive work with Council Central Staff to “to develop a method for enhanced reporting for selected ongoing programs, or components of ongoing programs, for potential inclusion in the Watch List.” It’s clear that’s needed.

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