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Does Seattle have the will to fast-track potential West Seattle Bridge replacement?

West Seattle Bridge. (SDOT/flickr)

The long-anticipated cost-benefit analysis of the West Seattle Bridge repair or replacement options was upstaged in a big way by the shiny, new option: a rapid replacement that could return full service to the corridor in under three years.

Decision delayed on West Seattle Bridge

The community task force advising Mayor Jenny Durkan on whether to repair or replace the bridge had been waiting on the cost-benefit analysis of the six potential types of fixes for months. They got it late Monday and were expected to dive deep into it at Wednesday’s meeting. Instead, they were wowed by bridge engineer Ted Zoli of HNTB, the company the city has hired to design a potential replacement.

Zoli is proposing a twin steel span bridge that is 40% lighter than concrete and can last 100 years. It would use the existing bridge piers and supports. It’s a bridge he told the group he can build by the first quarter of 2023. To do it, he would demolish the existing span while building the new ones off-site.

“The approaches and the arches can be built at different fabrication shops independent of each other,” he said. “We have two arches, twin arches, that are delivered and lifted independent of each other and perhaps could be opened to traffic independent of each other.”

That means little work in the water and limited disruption to the low bridge, which is the only lifeline to West Seattle.

“There’s very few bridges, I can think of none, where the swing-bridge opens underneath the span that we are trying to replace,” he said. “It’s a very constrained, very busy site.”

The lack of in-water work would greatly reduce the amount of environmental work and permitting that would be needed to speed up delivery.

Zoli did about five years of environmental work in six weeks while replacing a bridge over Lake Champlain between New York and Vermont, so he knows it can be done.

The question is whether can it be done in Seattle, which loves rules, regulations, and a deliberate process.

“Whenever I hear fast-tracking of EIS in the City of Seattle, lots of lawsuit alarms and suing go off loudly,” task force member Dan Austin said.

It became quite clear that many on the task force don’t believe the city has the guts to do it. Port of Seattle commissioner Peter Steinbrueck was among them.

“I do believe that miracles can happen, if there’s a will and a determination, but they are very rare, particularly with regard to Seattle process,” he told the group.

But Zoli said it can be done, only if leaders change their thinking.

Region’s maritime industry hangs on West Seattle Bridge decision

“I just don’t buy that we can’t figure out how to replace bridges quickly,” he said. “I just can’t think of a project in the country that’s more worthy of a fast-track replacement than this bridge.”

Member Diane Sosne, who represents nurses in West Seattle, summed it up perfectly:

“I think this is about political will,” she said.

We shall see if city leaders have the strength to fast-track environmental work to save West Seattle from dying on the vine. Of course, this shiny new option still has to be thoroughly vetted and put through the paces. But if the decision is made to go with replacement, it is certainly more than intriguing.

And fast-tracking the environmental work isn’t the only thing that is going to take some heavy lifting. Finding funding sources for any option is going to be difficult. SDOT’s Heather Marx said that is going to take some leadership too.

“Ted’s can-do attitude is amazing,” Marx told the group. “I have a can-do attitude, but what we’re going to need is a can-do attitude on the part of elected officials, who are in control of money that is going to be needed in order to complete this bridge.”

In other West Seattle Bridge news, the photo enforcement cameras that will be watching the Lower Spokane Street Bridge will be installed next month. The signs warning of their installation should be going up this weekend. Warnings are expected to go out Dec. 1, with $75 tickets coming in the mail in January.

If you are not a bus, an emergency vehicle, a vanpool or a company shuttle, you are going to get a ticket if you use the lower bridge between 5 a.m. and 9 p.m.

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