City Hall

Report: Seattle's Bridges in Disrepair, With No Solution in Sight

A new report suggests that the maintenance backlog on Seattle's roads and bridges may be close to $2 billion.

By Erica C. Barnett January 15, 2013


Image via city of Seattle.

A new report from the city's Department of Transportation (SDOT) suggests that the city has a road and bridge maintenance backlog of $1.8 billion, and should be spending about $190 million on road and bridge maintenance every year. Instead, it spends between $40 million and $50 million a year, letting the transportation system fall into greater and greater disrepair. 

The report, which comes two years before a likely ballot measure to renew the 2006 Bridging the Gap transportation levy, concluded that nearly one in three city bridges are in such disrepair that they're candidates for replacement. Of those, ten are "structurally deficient" and seven can only handle reduced loads—no trucks or buses, in other words. Just 59 percent of city bridges are in "good" condition, compared to 86 percent of bridges maintained by the state, and 43 city bridges are "functionally obsolete," meaning that they aren't up to current size, load, and clearance standards. 

"Bridging the Gap expires in two years and I don’t see any other way than for the city to go back to the voters and ask for extending or perhaps increasing the levy," SDOT director Peter Hahn told the council's transportation committee last week. 

"If we don't do one dollar in repair, at a certain point, our costs [for the same repair] would get into the $3 to $7 dollar level," Hahn said.

In an interview, SDOT's John Buswell told PubliCola there's no reason to worry that Seattle's bridges are unsafe: "Bridges are managed to such a high standard of safety, which is maybe different than how you might manage sidewalks, where you might tolerate a root [coming up] or something," Buswell said. "They would be closed down well before any safety issues came up." 

However, 23 Seattle bridges ranked below 50 on a 100-point "bridge sufficiency rating" scale, a measure of whether a bridge is safe enough to stay in service. Buswell says the ratings include factors such as the strength of a bridge's structure, the width of the lanes, and how well it serves a community. The South Park Bridge, which was shut down in 2010, had a rating of around 10; for comparison, the Magnolia Bridge, which will eventually have to be replaced, ranked just under 18. 

Mayor Mike McGinn, of course, has been widely criticized for supposedly focusing city transportation resources on things like sidewalks, bus facilities, and bike lanes. Although that criticism is misplaced—voters approved Bridging the Gap, which pays for those controversial amenities, under former mayor Greg Nickels, whose administration also approved the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plans—there's always the possibility that BTG's association with McGinn could tarnish the program's reputation, making it a tougher sell in 2015. 

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