OP-ED: Why didn't the City of Seattle have a contingency plan in case the bridge failed?
By Elizabeth Steen
A little more than 20 years ago, as a 20-year-old, I was hired as a small-town newspaper journalist by virtue of being, according to my boss, “The only one who finished the interview after hearing the salary.”
That newspaper job was my introduction to Stan, the local Road Commissioner Engineer and possibly the most detail-oriented, transportation-obsessed person I’ve ever met. Stan could expound on the merits of banked road berms vs. natural edges for at least 90 minutes without repeating himself and he would carefully correct me, the journalist who still couldn’t legally drink, whenever I used a general term for which a more precise definition existed. Which was all the time, in his opinion.
As a West Seattle resident, I’ve always assumed that some earnest, detail-oriented engineer similar to Stan is in charge of the West Seattle Bridge Project. But the recent press releases and communications from the Seattle Department of Transportation have made me question whether their current efforts would pass the Stan test.
For one, Stan’s agency always kept in place a rolling ten-year plan of contingencies, expenses, and estimates for replacement ready to go in case anything went wrong with the local transportation infrastructure, including bridges. He reported updates to this plan meticulously at each commissioner’s meeting. He was not impressed when one commissioner surmised that maybe they could spend less time on “something that might not ever happen.”
Tornados and floods occurred every few years in the area at the time, and as Stan said, “You don’t know where or when but there’s only so many things that can happen and so many ways to fix it.” Stan always knew what could happen and how to fix it.
Unlike the agency Stan headed, Seattle is quite a bit more free-wheeling when it comes to disaster preparedness. This is surprising because we are also quite a bit more likely to have disasters than Stan’s midwestern hometown. The West Seattle Bridge rests on a fault line. The current bridge was damaged once by an earthquake in 2001. An earlier bridge in the same location was completely disabled by a runaway ship. In 2015, the New Yorker magazine famously described in hair-raising detail a tsunami and earthquake that scientists believe will hit the Seattle area in the next hundred years (not a long time on a fault line), wiping out all major infrastructure, including the bridge. The bridge going out has never been “something that might not happen.” It was always a question of when.
And so, as Stan would have anticipated and planned for, on March 23, 2020, the West Seattle bridge closed. Yet five months later, West Seattle citizens still don’t know why. The closure might be related to damage from the 2001 earthquake, poorly mixed epoxy in recent repairs, a failure in maintenance, concrete that didn’t last as long as expected when the bridge was built 35 years ago, too much traffic, heavier cars, an additional bus line… there’s been speculation but no confirmation from any official source.
And in topics such as disaster preparedness, contingencies, federal funding, and other details that Stan always patiently explained to the public, Seattle area public employees have taken a different approach. Seattle public employees lean toward the “more words, less info” style of public communication. The press release announcing the closure said, “What we believe the reports show is our careful, proactive monitoring effort that put into place the systems necessary to make sure we could act quickly to preserve life and safety. Additionally, they show that during our frequent inspections of the West Seattle Bridge over the past several years, there was no indication that the bridge was unsafe for ordinary use or that preventative maintenance plans would impact normal use of the bridge until very, very recently.” This press release hints at disaster to “life and safety” but neatly avoids any details. The bridge is closed. They’re happy with their efforts. The end. Stan would never disrespect the public like that, and he wasn’t the type to ask for credit for saving the public from a potential disaster due to unspecified causes, either.
It’s also concerning that where Stan was careful and meticulous with the funding resources he had, Seattle Department of Transportation has been the opposite, even with a bigger budget and more responsibility. Stan never attended a road commission meeting without a list of federal and state agencies to which he had been applying for funding. With that list, he also had updates on the criteria these agencies used to evaluate applications and his own estimate (usually correct) of how likely the funding grant was to be approved. He also knew when the funds would be distributed and what actions the commissioners needed to take ahead of the funding distribution to be sure the local road commission would qualify for the funds. 20 years ago these programs were posted online, the way they are now. I don’t know how much time he spent researching everything back in the days before Google. But today, the same research is available to anyone with a computer and internet access and about 20 minutes.
There is a big contrast between Stan’s careful planning for his small state agency with limited funds, and the much larger Seattle Department of Transportation. Not only was there no disaster plan in place for a pending Seattle disaster everyone knew was going to happen, even five months after the bridge closed no one at the Seattle Department of Transportation has yet identified or applied for grant funding from federal or state sources. ‘We’re still working on the wording” for the grant applications, said spokesperson Heather Marx in a presentation to the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce on August 20, 2020. Seattle’s Congressperson Pramila Jaypal has requested some Congressional appropriations for a repair. However, unlike federal grants that are awarded based on objective criteria, appropriations (more popularly known as “pork”) are awarded by a committee made up of other politicians. As a result, appropriations are awarded based on the relative seniority of the Congressperson asking and other non-objective factors. As a result, somehow, in a world where funding sources and applications are more widely available than when Stan was updating his funding efforts every month without access to the internet, tech-heavy Seattle has been left to the pre-internet infrastructure funding method of, “Cross our fingers and hope our politician gets more pork than the rest.” This seems off, to me.
Finally, where Stan was detailed in his budgets, to a fault, Seattle’s attempts at funding for the bridge and every other project is much more vague.
Stan once called me in a panic because his assistant had transposed two numbers in a line item for a contract that was being awarded, making the total in a press release announcing a six-figure paving contract off by about $263. Seattle Department of Transportation, meanwhile, rounds its budget line items up to the nearest tens of millions, and offers little detail.
In the 2020 proposed budget (no actual list of expenses to date is available to the public, which again is not what Stan would do) “Leadership and Administration” was expected to cost the city $39,766,387 in “Citywide indirect costs.” An additional $14,905,528 was budgeted for “Departmental Indirect Costs.” The difference between “citywide” and “departmental” costs is not explained. Presumably this is salaries for some “leadership and administration.” But who knows what or whom? Did some of these millions go to the former director who was fired for yelling at people? (Not that I can totally blame him while reading these budget categories). Or was it all for the new director and his staff? No one knows. That’s all the detail that’s available.
For bridges Seattle budgeted $7,350,131 for “Structures Maintenance,” which is both a very specific number and also not helpful at all in forming a mental picture of what the city does to maintain the structures of its bridges that are built on a fault line.
One entire category of the Seattle Department of Transportation’s budget is called “Mobility Operations,” and the categories that make up the $203,881,330 total in this category are simultaneously impressively vague and detailed enough to raise my curiosity: “Commuter Mobility, $25,116,933,” “Transit Operations, $57,583,057.” If you ask for more details, the press releases are, again, not Stan-approved. The most recent budget report from the Mayor’s office states, “The purpose of the Commuter Mobility Program is to provide a variety of services, including enforcement of City commercial vehicle limits, transit coordination, and planning, to increase mobility and transportation options to the residents of Seattle." So taxpayers are spending $25 million on “a variety of services” intended to “increase mobility and transportation.” That clears that up? It may not be charitable of me to picture a nephew of a local politician, parked in a dark, rarely-used office, and collecting $25 million a year to provide occasional reports on “increasing mobility and transportation,” while turning in expense reports that provide that last $33 in the budget line. But my time with Stan pretty much makes me jump to this cynical scenario.
Stan would be the first person to tell you that I am not qualified to evaluate a transportation department. So I don’t know what Stan would think of a city that started a $4 million communications effort intended to promote people using options other than the bridge, before they applied for funds to fix the bridge that’s been closed for half the year.
But based on watching him for the few years that I knew him, I suspect Stan would be horrified by the lack of a contingency plan for an emergency that everyone knew would happen eventually. The corresponding effort by the city to spend another $2 million on a survey of “tolling options” instead of, again, just doing anything to fix it, would also be unlikely to impress a man who panicked over a typo in a press release. Seattle’s choice to survey the public about potential tax increases, while waiting to start the actual repairs, was definitely not Stan’s style. And while Stan was often required to adjust his timeframes up or down as the situation changed, I don’t think he would ever, as the Seattle Department of Transportation has, simply issue a new press release without admitting that the old schedule was changed. The “repair or replace” decision for the West Seattle Bridge was originally scheduled for “Summer 2020,” in press releases from when the bridge closed. Now summer is pretty much over. And the Seattle Department of Transportation blithely announced, on August 20, 2020, again without elaborating, that they are “now on track to decide in October 2020.”
The Seattle Department of Transportation handles a more complicated work load than Stan. But the basic overview that Stan led me to expect from a competent state agency seems more than within their capabilities. They’re perfectly able to identify funding sources, submit applications, and to do so without spending five months pondering “the wording.” They might not have known when or how the West Seattle Bridge would fail, but they certainly knew that it would, eventually. And they could have, like Stan did for the bridges he was responsible, create a working plan to identify the costs of repair, replacement, or other options, and keep that working plan updated.
No one expects a large state agency to do everything perfectly. But the same basic expectations of accountability apply equally to agencies as small as Stan’s and as large as Seattle’s. We didn’t know when the bridge would fail, but we did know that it would happen. That we are still left flailing without a plan five months later does not seem reasonable.
However, I suspect, personally, that the city of Seattle maybe did have a plan all along. The city has talked endlessly about seeking new sources of funding. Tolls and tax increases are the only options available to increase their budget. I have no proof, and Stan wouldn’t like me speculating, but I wonder if the city saw the bridge cracking as an opportunity, rather than a problem? Maybe the delay in replacement is a feature, not a bug? The longer the city delays, and the more studies they send, the more likely they are to work up new sources of funding from an old problem. A problem that, let’s face it, they knew they had a long time ago. The city’s choice to spend time and money on “communications” and “tolling options” connected to getting more taxes and fees from the public, rather than “funding for a new bridge from the usual sources,” is the only evidence I have to back up my suspicions. That’s not enough to be sure. So I’m not entirely confident that the city is deliberately slow walking the bridge replacement in order to work up support for a toll and a new transportation tax levy (or two, or more) in the next couple of years. But I do feel confident that the 10% of the city’s residents who live in West Seattle deserved more transparency and more focused problem solving than we’ve seen in the last six months.
Elizabeth Steen is part of Divorce Without Court: Westside Collaborative Law PLLC.
Where is Stan when you need him? Thank you for articulating the myriad of ways the city and state have failed The 80,000 residents of West Seattle and the People who love them and might actually want to see them without a horrendous detour (which by the way, is only semi-feasible because of the pandemic. In normal traffic, I suspect this will explode to 2+ hours).
Older West Seattleites remember the long process to a new high bridge and no plan B when the original Harbor Island Bridge was destroyed by a ship (predictably?).
The fact that there seems no altenative plans available is partly because, where do we start? With Seattle's established road system experiencing overcapacity coupled with expected so many expired lifetimes could even Stan provide contingency plans 10 years out. Seattle has ignored the structures of its road systems in favor of flashier expenitures like publicly funded stadiums.
Thank you for articulating much of what I've been thinking, from the very first Town Hall where SDOT expressed zero empathy and told us we were going to have to "figure it out and get creative" to the last Community Task Force meeting where Mayor Durkan showed up and there was 15 mins of back slapping and not much else. We need a Stan, stat.