Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

West Seattle Bridge to be repaired, officials say, with plans for eventual replacement

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

Seattle transit officials say they're moving forward to repair the West Seattle Bridge, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced Thursday.

“Repair or replace?” has been the primary question in the months since the span closed to traffic earlier this year. Now, after weighing all the factors and listening to stakeholders, Durkan says repair — at least in the immediate future — is the best option.

“I will tell you I went in to this with a bias toward replacement,” Durkan said in a news conference Thursday. But she acknowledged after the process played out, that replacement “took too long and cost too much.”

The repairs will cost an estimated $50 million. They are expected to extend the life of the bridge between 15 and 40 years. The city will pursue a replacement option simultaneously, with an eye toward collaborating with Sound Transit on a new multi-modal bridge that will bring light rail to West Seattle in about a decade.

In a statement released ahead of Durkan’s public announcement, Durkan said she is directing the Seattle Department of Transportation to continue early design work for that eventual replacement. 

“This corridor is critical to our economy and our residents,” Durkan said in the release. “While all options have risks, repair will get West Seattle reconnected the fastest and funding is more certain.”?

Durkan added that in the past five months, SDOT has worked to stabilize the bridge and work is already underway for longer-term repair so traffic can resume in 2022.

The West Seattle Bridge closed in March after regular inspections revealed worsening cracks in the structure. For months, a plan of action for how to address the structural integrity of the critical thoroughfare was uncertain — posing a big problem for nearly 93,000 West Seattle residents. It also piled onto Seattle's mounting budgetary challenges in the face of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

And in October, KNKX reported that Durkan's decision on whether to replace or repair the structure was delayed until after the election, due to uncertainty over federal funding. The uncertainty was rooted in the Trump administration’s declaration that Seattle was an "anarchist jurisdiction." 

Thursday’s decision was informed by SDOT experts and community outreach through the West Seattle Bridge Community Task Force. 

“Not a moment has been lost to restore travel across the Duwamish for communities in and around West Seattle as the Mayor consulted our structural team at SDOT, members of the Community Task Force, our outside technical experts, and others to arrive at the best path forward to safely restore this critical connection as quickly as possible,” SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe said in the city’s news release. “SDOT stands ready to drive this repair forward and reconnect West Seattle by 2022.”

Zimbabwe, who is a resident of West Seattle, says this is not just another construction project. He called it “a human-centered emergency” that hits hard for families and the economic recovery.

“Though it's the fastest path forward, repair still comes with a long term emergency closure of the high rise bridge that is disproportionately impacting communities of color in West Seattle and the Duwamish Valley as they absorb the vast majority of our traffic in areas already facing higher levels of pollution, asthma and environmental injustices,” Zimbabwe said. “Any efforts on the bridge come with double focus and effort on the ground to keep our communities safe.”

People who live in communities near the bridge welcomed the decision for repairs rather than replacement.

he Duwamish River Valley is already impacted by pollution from jets headed to Sea-Tac Airport and freight headed to the Port of Seattle. Public health researchers havedocumented higher rates of asthma and heart disease and shorter life expectancies there.

Paulina Lopez represents the Duwamish Valley and South Park as co-chair of the Community Task Force that’s advising Seattle on the bridge replacement. She says the bridge closure has the biggest impact on her community.

“One hundred thousand vehicles that would be diverted to our local streets, brings of course this concern of having additional air pollution into a community that already has very high air pollution rates,” Lopez said. 

So she says it’s a big relief that a repaired bridge will open in just two years.

“You know, like that sort of impact coming for the next six years was very scary.”  

That's how long it could have taken to build a new bridge. Lopez says the task force will work to keep city and port officials accountable and secure mitigation measures such as noise barriers and investments in the community.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal has identified two existing federal grant programs that can be utilized to help fund the bridge repairs.

The BUILD and INFRA grant programs can both be used for transportation and infrastructure projects across the country — including to repair existing bridges.

“As a West Seattle resident, I know how important it is to our community, businesses, port and regional economy that we quickly and safely repair the West Seattle Bridge,” Jayapal said. “My office and I have already identified two federal grant programs for infrastructure projects, and we are ready to assist the city in the application process so they have the resources and support necessary to successfully make these repairs.”

Jayapal and her office have worked closely with the City of Seattle, the West Seattle Bridge Community Task Force and the state’s two U.S. senators as recent discussions about the bridge have occurred. She will continue to coordinate the Washington State Congressional Delegation’s response in the weeks and months ahead.

KNKX's Simone Alicea and Bellamy Pailthorp and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.