Whose Bridge Is It Anyway?

If you’re coming from South Park, you can’t get here from there.

By Eric Scigliano July 21, 2010 Published in the August 2010 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Russell Lo

TIM FAHEY is a very dark horse in the race for an open seat on the King County Council. His neighborhood, South Park, is one of Seattle’s least wealthy and most isolated, a defiantly scruffy blue-collar, bohemian, and Latino-immigrant enclave across the Duwamish River from the Boeing industrial belt. He’s a union carpenter, unemployed in the current bust and so broke that the city cut off his water: “I carry two buckets up from the river to flush my toilet.” But Fahey has an issue that resonates like a ringing gong in South Park, Burien, Boulevard Park, and other South End environs: the closure of the drawbridge that was their main link to Seattle, and which roused him to run for office for the first time.

If it were up to the thousand or so people mobbing the South Park Bridge on June 30, Fahey would be a shoo-in. A few weeks earlier, King County, which owns the bridge, had announced that the 79-year-old drawbridge, weakened by age, rot, and hard service, would open for the last time at 7 that evening. The crowd on the bridge, and other hordes milling around the improvised fairgrounds below, had gathered for a wake. Many wore hot pink, the designated fashion motif; current council member Jan Drago sported a pink boa and cowboy hat. Others wore cheeky T-shirts (“Thanks for Nothing, Seattle” and “The First Time a Bridge Has Jumped Off of You”) and waved shovels and protest signs (“We Need a Bridge!”). Tim Fahey held forth to the protesters on his ingenious if legally dubious scheme for getting a new bridge built: The communities served by it should withhold half their property taxes and use the funds to build it themselves. Otherwise it would never get done. “There has been no political will to rebuild this bridge for 32 years. There’s not going to be any for 32 years.” The crowd fell silent as he broke into song, a haunting Irish farewell lyric, and raised a shot of whiskey in a final toast. Everyone cheered. 

The appointed hour for the bridge’s final opening came and went, and no one budged. “We want a bridge! We want our bridge!” the crowd chanted, briefly facing down the handful of road workers and two chubby sheriff’s deputies sent to clear the way. “We had no idea this would happen!” exclaimed one dumbfounded crewman.

County and city elected officials can’t say the same thing about the South Park Bridge’s obsolescence; they knew for decades that they would have to erect a new crossing. And they don’t deny that it was a vital connector, bearing 20,000 vehicles a day, an outsize share of them trucks serving the region’s industrial hub along the Duwamish. But the (necessary) job of rebuilding fell through gaping cracks in this region’s political and fiscal infrastructure.

About 20 years ago the City of Seattle, whose territory surrounds the bridge, considered taking it over, together with maintenance costs, from King County. Then the city discovered how far gone the bridge was and declared the deal off until the county replaced it. The cash-starved county has moved toward doing so, spending $22 million getting plans and permits for a new bridge shovel-ready. New county executive Dow Constantine (who once held the council seat Fahey now seeks) has stepped up the pace, seeking $131 million to demolish the old bridge and build a new one.

Fahey thinks that’s way more than the county needs to spend. Drawbridges are expensive; he wonders why it doesn’t build a much cheaper low-level stationary bridge a mile and a quarter upriver, where the Duwamish ceases to be navigable. Tim Lane, the county’s bridge project manager, counters that would mean rejiggering “the entire roadway network” nearby, undercutting any savings. “I think we’ve done the best job with it we can.”

If so, then somebody else has fallen down on the job. One culprit is the City of Seattle. Last year King County submitted an overambitious application for $99 million in federal stimulus money to pay for most of it. Then-mayor Greg Nickels and two-thirds of the Seattle City Council declined to support the pitch, instead tendering a competing proposal to fix the Mercer Mess in South Lake Union. The impasse seemed a pithy summation of the Nickels administration’s priorities: everything for a new, upscale district and its primary developer (Paul Allen’s Vulcan), nothing for distressed older neighborhoods.

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Image: Russell Lo

In August, King County will apply again for stimulus funding. This time the county has done its homework, and Mike McGinn’s new city administration has gotten with the program. It’s joined the county, state, Port of Seattle, Transportation Improvement Board, and Puget Sound Regional Council in pledging a total of $95 million of the $131 million required. Though that hardly makes approval a slam dunk, it should encourage the feds, who like to see local unanimity first and then give the last share to see projects through.

With luck, and federal approval, the new bridge could be built by 2014, perhaps late 2013. If so, there will be jubilation down on the Duwamish. But Diana Toledo, another candidate for the same county council seat, won’t be impressed. The whole saga demonstrates a “typical lack of accountability at King County,” says Toledo, a disillusioned ex-manager–turned–whistle-blower in the county’s troubled licensing and animal control programs. “They wait till somebody pushes them to do something, till the last minute, so they can get the credit for fixing an emergency. If they did it straight off they wouldn’t get any credit. The best analogy is BP—people knew it was a problem waiting to blow up.”

For Toledo and for Fahey, the bridge debacle also represents what she calls “an issue of social justice”: Is it conceivable that, say, the Magnolia or Mercer Island Bridge would be allowed to crumble away till it’s unusable? Then again, South Park’s ordeal may be an omen for more affluent communities. King County owns about 150 bridges, many of them aged and worn. Seattle has upgraded its major drawbridges, but much of its other infrastructure, from potholed streets to a failing seawall, is in sad shape. Mayor McGinn has been tussling with the state and city council over what had been settled plans to replace the 520 bridge and Alaskan Way Viaduct. Then there’s Interstate 5, also coming up for major repairs. The South Park Bridge follies are just a warm-up for infrastructure crises to come.

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