Seattle’s drawbridges need millions of dollars in maintenance

Free scooter rides offered to essential workers in Seattle

More than 14,000 times a year, the Seattle Department of Transportation safely raises and lowers its drawbridges, despite the fact that three of them are a century old.

This little wonder requires constant maintenance to serve a city lacking the money and plans to replace its old bridges soon.

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has identified around $ 7.8 million in urgent projects to keep the Ballard, Fremont and University steel deck bridges and Spokane Street swing bridge reliable for ship openings.

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that addresses the area’s delicate transportation problems, identifies promising approaches to alleviate downtime, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with help from community sponsors Alaska Airlines, Kemper Development Co., Madrona Venture Group, NHL Seattle, PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company, and Seattle Children’s Hospital. The Seattle Times editors and reporters work independently of our donors and maintain editorial control over the content of Traffic Lab.

The agency compiled the list at the request of Seattle City Councilor Alex Pedersen, who toured the University Bridge last month with Matt Donahue, director of SDOT roads.

For several years now, councilors have been reluctant to invest large sums of money in maintaining the bridge in order to favor other transport services and security work.

“The least they can do is replace the aging components that keep our moving bridges from failing,” Pedersen said. “The cost of replacing these critical parts is only $ 8 million, and I think it’s a wise investment to make sure we don’t have another bridge out of service.”

Maintenance of the bridge caught council attention in March 2020 when rapidly growing cracks forced SDOT to close the West Seattle Bridge for two years while repairs are in progress. Previously, the 104-year-old Ballard Bridge was open twice in December 2019.

An audit last year found that at least $ 34 million a year should be spent on maintaining the city’s 124 bridges, with a replacement value of $ 6.9 billion. Seattle spent just $ 6.6 million a year for the past decade, but increased that number to $ 9.5 million in 2021.

SDOT’s project list includes new drawbridge hoist motors “for which spares are no longer available,” engineering research to ensure the steel spans are properly balanced as it is lifted, and new hydraulic drives to rotate the Spokane Street pivoting bridge .

The roughly $ 7.8 million does not include design, management and contingent liability costs, which could bring the total close to $ 10.2 million, said spokesman Ethan Bergerson.

Pedersen, chairman of the council’s transportation and utilities committee, suggested using $ 20 in auto-tab fees to increase maintenance of the bridge by $ 7.2 million a year. His plan was co-sponsored by councilors Andrew Lewis, whose district includes Ballard Bridge, and Lisa Herbold, of West Seattle. A thin majority refused, so that the money will be divided up by a subcommittee for purposes that have not yet been decided.

One year of auto-tab fees “could potentially pay for everything on the list,” Lewis said Tuesday. I think we have an impending infrastructure crisis in the city when it comes to bridges. ”

In addition, he said bonds could be sold from the Car-Tab proceeds, raising SDOT tens of millions of dollars to combine with any infrastructure grants from the Biden government. The city would be in a better position to replace the Ballard or Magnolia Bridges or improve transit and security programs, Lewis said.

Pedersen has proposed developer fees for bridge improvements that Seattle doesn’t charge but uses in 79 other cities in Washington.

Last week, Pedersen suggested channeling some of the city’s $ 230 million pandemic aid into city bridges. The council’s talks on these grants began Tuesday, with transportation listed among nine priorities and competing with food aid, rental assistance and other needs.

Meanwhile, SDOT recently completed the seismic reinforcement of the West Howe Street Bridge over Magnolia Park with nine more projects through 2025. This summer, the city will reopen a new Fairview Avenue North bridge that used to stand on wooden stilts.

On a partly sunny Monday, the steel decks of the university bridge were opened and lowered at 9 a.m., inaudible under the noise of Interstate 5 nearby.

The traffic decks and sidewalks need new gate arms, Donahue said. “They work, but they go out all the time. It’s full of hard-to-replace parts. “

He unlocked a door to a dark staircase that leads to the electric motor room and a catwalk below the decks. From there, you can see the dark green teeth of mammoth gears – one for each side of the folding decks.

These are still solid based on ultra-fluorescence tests that showed no hidden defects, Donahue said. New motor control circuits were installed in 2014, but the Ballard Bridge is still based on computer components from the early 1980s.

The University Bridge, built in 1919 and largely rebuilt in 1930, is classified in the National Bridge Inventory as “bad” due to its old foundations. Additional funds beyond the $ 7.8 million will sooner or later be needed to address this weakness.

For example, a large concrete pillar just above the north bank of the canal has a vertical furrow through which steel reinforcement shines. That point needs mending, and rock riprap will likely be needed below to prevent erosion near the water level, Donahue said. However, road decks and spans are in good condition.

“You know me,” he said. “I’d rather rehabilitate than replace.”