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West Seattle Bridge
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One year after West Seattle Bridge closure, there’s ‘a light at the end of the bridge’

The West Seattle Bridge. (SDOT, Flickr Creative Commons)

It was one year ago Tuesday when Seattle bridge engineers looked at the expanding cracks on the West Seattle Bridge and made the call to shut it down.

History of the West Seattle Bridge

We all knew the West Seattle Bridge had cracking concrete. Engineers had been monitoring the cracks for years, but something strange started happening early in 2020. The cracks started growing at an alarming rate.

Seattle bridge engineer Matt Donahue was inspecting the cracks on March 23, 2020, when he made the call to shut down the bridge.

“That type of growth in a reinforced concrete structure is completely unacceptable,” he said later. “That’s typically the type of growth you see over years, not over weeks and days.”

Within hours of Donahue’s decision, Mayor Jenny Durkan made the announcement to the public.

“Tonight, the West Seattle high rise bridge will be closed to all traffic,” she said. “This will last until we can do further assessments regarding safe operation of the bridge.”

The cracks kept growing, even with no vehicles putting weight on it, and it became clear that this was going to be a long-term situation. Transportation Director Sam Zimbabwe then delivered the news that no one in West Seattle wanted to hear.

“We don’t anticipate, at this time, traffic returning to the bridge in 2020 or 2021,” he said.

West Seattle had lost its direct access to the rest of the region. The Lower Spokane Street Bridge was then declared off-limits to anything other than transit and emergency vehicles.

There was a six-month debate over whether to repair the 36-year-old bridge or replace it. A repair would get people back on the bridge faster, but there was no guarantee the fix would last. A replacement would have meant six years without a bridge and a huge price tag.

People started getting upset it was taking so long to make a decision.

Dan Austin, who runs a restaurant in West Seattle, said in October, “We’re hurting on multiple fronts … We need this bridge restored as soon as possible.”

Austin, like many, wondered why it seemed to be taking so long for a decision. Engineer Donahue had to remind them that bridge work is quite technical, and the city was working at light speed.

“There has been a substantial amount of work that would normally take years that has been done in weeks and months,” he said.

The decision was made to repair the bridge instead of replacing it. The city finished up temporary repairs in late December, wrapping the cracking sections in carbon fiber and strengthening the steel cables inside the bridge.

It was just earlier this month that plans to repair the bridge reached 30% design. The contract is now out for bid. The repair is expected to get people back on the bridge in early July of next year. The repairs should be completed by the end of next June.

City sets $175 million price tag for repairs to West Seattle Bridge

Former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, a West Seattle resident and co-chair of the committee advising the city on what to do, took a moment to look back on one year of the bridge being closed.

“I think it is worth pausing and thinking about this last year,” he said earlier this month. “It was such an odd time to begin with. We were just getting into the shutdown over COVID, and life had changed a lot.  And then with two hours notice, our main access to the mainland was gone.”

Life in West Seattle has not been easy over the last year. Traffic is jammed every day trying to get off the peninsula. The Lower Spokane Street Bridge has been restricted to most traffic. Georgetown, South Park, and really the entire area has seen traffic go way up. Businesses continue to struggle. Some people have moved out.

But if all goes according to plan, West Seattle could get back to normal in 15 months.

“We can start to see a light at the end of the bridge,” Nickels said.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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