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UPDATE: West Seattle Bridge will be repaired, mayor decides

(Update: Announcement event is over; video should be available, archived, above, shortly)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

The suspense is over.

Mayor Jenny Durkan is announcing this morning that the city will repair the West Seattle Bridge, eight months after she announced its shockingly sudden closure.

The alternative – replacing its damaged midsection with a shiny new steel span – was appealing, she and SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe acknowledged in a pre-announcement media briefing, but covering its cost and achieving a “rapid replacement” timeline seemed out of reach. So, to get West Seattle moving again as soon as possible, she decided that repairing the bridge is the way to go.

Before we get to details, quick answers to 6 big questions:

Some traffic might return to the bridge in “the first part of 2022” but the projected completion is “mid-2022.”

That’s what SDOT expects, though an early-2022 reopening might have to be “phased in.”

Next fall.

Consultant WSP is designing the repairs, and then a contractor will be sought to build/install them.

The Cost-Benefit Analysis made a rough estimate of almost $50 million but that won’t be refined until the repairs are designed.

Projected – 15 to 40 years.

So here’s the rest of the story:

(West Seattle Bridge cracks photographed by SDOT before stabilization work began)

It’s been five months since the city’s top bridge manager disclosed that repairs seemed possible. and four months since the Technical Advisory Panel concurred. The question was whether repairs were feasible, not just possible.

In the briefing, the mayor characterized her choice as facilitating a “plan to safely and quickly restore mobility” – though “quickly” isn’t really the word for what will have been a 2-year closure if the projected time frame for repairs works out. (It’s not a surprise, though, as the city has consistently said since April 15th that traffic would not return to the bridge in any scenario before 2022.) She said economic factors weighed most heavily in the decision – the potential cost to West Seattle businesses and residents as well as port jobs if the closure lasted too long.

She said she had been leaning toward replacement but the “rapid” timeline did not seem a sure bet and finding half a billion dollars to fund it didn’t either. The rosy suggestion of a possible 2023 completion for the “rapid span replacement” conflicted with the city’s experience in getting permits for prior projects. However, the bridge will eventually need to be replaced, so planning for that will continue, with a Type, Size, & Location study. She stressed that they would aspire to a multimodal bridge – more transit, maybe even bicycling, and they would continue talking to Sound Transit.

SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe talked about the nuts and bolts of the work, both what’s been done and what’s now ahead. He said the stabilization work that’s been done so far is “performing well to date.” He described the plan as a “challenging engineering solution” and “highly technical work.” They’re also studying the bridge to see what other parts of it might need repair before the end of its expected lifespan in 40 years. But they are confident the repairs will succeed:

Once the repairs are designed, a contractor will be sought to run the project as a GC/CM – General Contractor/Construction Manager – which city documents describe as an “alternative public works delivery method” that “is intended to create a more collaborative relationship between the City and the General Contractor that is not found in a traditional ‘design-bid-build’ delivery method.” That selection process is expected to start in spring; the actual repairs would start in fall.

Looking beyond the repairs, Zimbabwe said they’ll go ahead with a Traffic/Revenue study as well as the Type/Size/Location study the mayor mentioned (which would look at a wide range of possible replacements, including a tunnel, project leader Heather Marx confirmed). Also in the future, work to strengthen the low bridge, as Marx noted while running through other components of the project. The Reconnect West Seattle traffic-mitigation projects are expected to total about $50 million. Zimbabwe pointed out that stabilization work so far has cost about $20 million.

WHAT’S NEXT? Members of the advisory Community Task Force already have been notified of the mayor’s decision, and have an online meeting with her at 3:30 pm today (watch here). SDOT also will be at tonight’s West Seattle Transportation Coalition meeting (6:30 pm, online, attendance info here). On the bridge, stabilization work will continue into December. As the permanent repairs are designed, they should have a clearer idea next year of cost.

ONE LAST ISSUE: At the heart of this remains the fact the bridge failed decades before it should have, and West Seattleites and neighboring communities are facing a total of 2 years of negative impacts as a result. So, we asked the mayor in the pre-announcement briefing, what is planned regarding determining who’s to blame and whether the city has any recourse, perhaps with the original builder? Durkan replied that they’ve “consulted with city attorneys” who are reviewing original documents, “If there’s anything (we can do), we’re going to pursue it.” She paused and laughed. “I’m not afraid to sue!”

ADDED 10:21 AM: The announcement event ended about 10 minutes ago. First – here’s the official SDOT announcement (and here’s the mayor’s version).

We asked about a big question that remained after the pre-announcement briefing: Why is the actual repair work not expected to start until fall of next year? Both Zimbabwe and Technical Advisory Panel co-chair Barbara Moffat said they need to observe the stabilization work’s response to a full thermal cycle before the repair design can be finalized. In response to another question, Moffat said the timelines projected so far have been admittedly “conservative.” She reiterated that the TAP feels it’s an “eminently doable repair scenario.” She also said the original bridge plans included an “option” for added post-tensioning (the steel strengthening cables) that wasn’t considered necessary at the time (but is now part of the stabilization). And she said it’s certainly possible the repair could be completed more quickly, but they don’t yet know the “methods” that will be used, so it’s too soon to say.

Other participants in the announcement event included West Seattle/South Park City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who had already indicated support for repair, saying she agrees it’s “the best approach” (here’s her full statement).

Still adding…

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