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'We have to repair or rebuild': Seattle mayor gives an update on West Seattle Bridge closure

The West Seattle Bridge is seen looking east following an emergency closure several weeks earlier, Wednesday, April 15, 2020, in Seattle.
Elaine Thompson
Associated Press
The West Seattle Bridge is seen looking east following an emergency closure several weeks earlier, Wednesday, April 15, 2020, in Seattle.

It’s been two months since city officials abruptly closed the West Seattle Bridgedue to widening cracks that could lead to collapse. But the future of the roadway remains unclear.

That uncertainty is a big problem for travelers around the region, including the nearly 93,000 people who live in West Seattle.

The city expects to spend about $33 million on temporary supports for the 36-year-old bridge. But it's not yet known how much the permanent fix will cost. Officials also don't know when the bridge could open again to traffic, but city engineers say it's unlikely to happen in 2020 or 2021.

A recent report showed how the bridge might fail. City leaders say failure is not imminent. But in the analysis, engineers illustrated an increasing risk of "partial collapse," which could lead to a total collapse of the bridge.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan gave KNKX Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick an update on the bridge's status. Listen to their conversation above or read the transcript below. Both have been edited for length and clarity.

Jenny Durkan, Mayor of Seattle: We got such little notice. Literally, I was called in the morning saying, 'We think we need to close the bridge today.' And we have been on an accelerated program to both understand what is happening with that bridge, but also get the engineers to determine what is the risk of failure, and if it does fail, what would happen. So that report was generated intentionally so that we would be able to minimize that risk for the bridge.

As the report indicates, there's many scenarios under which it could fail. We do not think we are in immediate danger of it failing. We've put equipment on the bridge now that can sense how the bridge is moving and how the cracks are increasing. That will help us predict what's happening with the bridge.

Kirsten Kendrick, KNKX: You mentioned that you had gotten a call that morning. I know that residents were shocked to hear the news. And I just wanted to kind of get a little bit more insight into how sudden of a thing this was.

Durkan: It was very sudden. I have to really give a lot of tribute to the Seattle Department of Transportation and their bridge engineers. Because remember, this was pretty early on in the pandemic. Everyone was focused on (the governor's) stay-home (order). We were worried our hospital system was going to be overrun. And so literally, we got that information in the morning and made the decision that we would close by the end of the day.

KNKX: Wow. 

Durkan: At the same time, we're working very hard on parallel courses to determine what would we need to do to repair the bridge. On the same track, we're trying to determine if that's not feasible, what would it take to replace the bridge? How much would that cost? And could we join, for example, with Sound Transit that has to build a bridge in order to get light rail to West Seattle.

We have to repair or rebuild. That's not a question. We must return that level of mobility to West Seattle. But I have to be honest with people, it's going to take longer than we would like.

So we've talked to Washington State Ferries. We're talking to King County to see if we can increase the foot ferries. We put different travel signals and repaving in all the areas where you can get in and out of West Seattle. We're trying to be smarter about mobility. We're talking about how do we get more transit in and out of there, and how do we get more people on bikes and walking when they can do that.

KNKX: Mayor, how will the eventual lifting of social distancing restrictions in the city affect repairs on the bridge, assuming that traffic increases? 

Durkan: It will actually complicate things. And we're working right now with both large employers and the community to see what can we do to reduce the number of trips. I think you'll see a number of people who live in West Seattle continue to telecommute, if that's what they can do. We'll also look for other mobility. But as traffic increases, it also increases the complexity in shutting down parts of the bridge, doing the kind of work that you need to do. So it's going to be a very complicated process over a significant period of time.

We hope to be able to announce later this week a community advisory group that will provide us some real-time input both to what the process is going forward, but also that we can brief so the community gets real-time information on what's happening with the bridge.

Clearly, for people who live in West Seattle, this is a lifeline for them. That bridge is essential to every part of their daily lives in that community. So we need to make sure that we can get real-time input from that community and they are part of the decision-making process.

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.