Seattle's not bridging the gap
By Jean Godden
Maintenance isn't a sexy word in Seattle. When it comes to maintenance on streets, bridges, sidewalks and other structures, there is never much appetite for doing the upkeep necessary to keep the city running.
Seattle has been neglecting basic responsibilities. That's obvious after the spectacular failure of the West Seattle Bridge, closed since March 21. Add to that another fiasco: the Sept. 13 collapse of Pier 58, followed by the precautionary closure of Pier 57.
In the aftermath of the West Seattle Bridge closure, Seattle Councilmember Alex Pedersen asked for an audit of Seattle bridges. The audit results were eye opening, maybe even terrifying. Nearly two-thirds of Seattle's 77 bridges were found to be deficient; only 22 were rated "good" and two heavily used structures, the Magnolia and University bridges, were deemed in "poor condition."
Shortcomings were found to be so glaring that the federal government last year warned that Seattle could fail federal inspection and risk losing tens of millions in federal grants.
This failure of stewardship isn't just worrisome for Seattle, but it's a concern for the entire Puget Sound region and for the state of Washington as well. Seattle functions as a regional hub. People throughout the state depend on this city's roads and bridges to reach the region's commercial headquarters, its port and employment centers, as well as major health, cultural and sports facilities.
The deterioration of city infrastructure didn't happen overnight. It's been a factor for years. In 2006, sagging structures had deteriorated enough to convince citizens to pass the Bridging the Gap levy to raise $369 million and get a start on infrastructure neglected during the 2001-03 dot-com recession. When that levy lapsed in 2015, taxpayers passed the $930-million Move Seattle levy with an unspecific project list. At the time, dollars allocated for bridge maintenance were about a tenth of what was needed.
When good times came along after the 2008-12 recession, city budgets grew almost 40 percent. But there was little push to tackle maintenance backlog. Instead there was a rush to spend on glitzier projects like exclusive bus and bike lanes, worthy add-ons but no substitute for basic structures. It's only human that we'd rather spend on the shiny new objects than mend tears in old ones.
Add to that the turnover at City Hall and in the Seattle Department of Transportation. Seattle has had six SDOT directors and an equal number of mayors in the last 18 years. The council, too, has turned over. Councilmembers have faced different challenges; they've had varying priorities. Maintenance has barely been on their to-do list.
But now with the example of the West Seattle Bridge closure and other bridges in poor condition, the way forward ought to be clear. Seattle must pay attention to critical transportation needs, even in these unbelievably tough times.
There have been calls to prioritize repairs and to seek regional help, to look for state and federal dollars. The likelihood of tapping those sources isn't good. But it will be far, far worse obtaining help if Seattle isn't willing to commit to working on maintenance backlog.
The poor state of infrastructure -- here and throughout the nation -- is shameful. Back in 2016, Candidate Trump promised an infrastructure package -- more than a trillion-dollars. But to date only Congress has acted, delivering a token percentage.
We now must to look to Congress -- hopefully along with a new president -- to make national infrastructure part of the economic recovery. Federal dollars could employ armies of workers, awakening the economy as practically no other program.
Seattle, however, must do its part. And, when working on that tight, difficult 2021 budget, councilmembers must not ignore critical maintenance. It's not a sexy topic but it's something we cannot afford to neglect. Ask any West Seattleite.
The city of Seattle seems to want to spend more time pouring money into homeless drug abusers who have no desire to stop using drugs. Meanwhile the taxpayers who give them that money can’t drive to work because the Mayor and City Council won’t act. There are only two questions that need to be asked. One, can it be fixed and last long enough to plan for a new bridge whenever that may be? Two, when do we start?Otherwise everything else is empty speech and a waste of time. It is time to act, not just with the West Seattle Bridge but the entire infrastructure of Seattle and the “do nothings” that sit in our government.
So we are not only declaring as fact ex cathedra that it was a reasonable mistake to be attracted to "shiny new toys" instead of spending money on basic city services (it was not), but we are also saying it is Trump's failure because he didn't spend other people's money fixing our bridges after we spent all our own on pretentious nonsense?
Agreed. Maintenance is highly important. What's the alternative? Wait for the next no 6 earthquake (or higher) to remind us?
Bus and bike lanes are “shiny new objects” that are no substitute for basic structures? Nonsense. The West Seattle Bridge has been broken for years. Thousands of hours have been wasted as people sat in cars hour after hour and day after day. The only way we can move people around our city safely and efficiently is through increased transit and active transportation such as walking and biking. If you think the future of Seattle is a bridge for moving cars from one traffic jam to the next, you’ve missed the boat.