CM Pedersen ‘disappointed’ in mayor’s decision to ‘kick the can’ on citywide bridge repairs

Apr 4, 2022, 8:07 PM | Updated: Apr 5, 2022, 9:57 am
The University Bridge in Seattle stuck in the upright position following mechanical issues over two days (MyNorthwest)

While eyes linger on the West Seattle Bridge project, Councilmember Alex Pedersen is “disappointed” that other city bridge renovation projects are getting overlooked.

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In November, the Seattle City Council passed a budget amendment that granted authority to issue $100 million in municipal debt bonds for select renovation of Seattle’s bridges.

Potential projects include upgrades to the Fremont and Ballard bridges for added resiliency from seismic activity; rehabilitation of the Fauntleroy Expressway, Spokane Street Swing Bridge, Magnolia, and University bridges; and other “major” bridge maintenance projects.

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell’s administration has declined to immediately use that funding mechanism: an effective deadline for leveraging the bonds expired at the end of March.

Instead, SDOT’s recommendation is to “use SDOT’s bridge investment and maintenance planning process – the SDOT Roadway Structures Business Practice Upgrade (BPU), scheduled for completion in late 2023 – to guide future capital investment decisions. This could
include bonding strategies, federal grant applications, and the development of a potential ballot measure that could consist of a major bridge capital rehabilitation program.”

“In the wake of hard lessons learned from the two-year closure of the West Seattle Bridge, the disturbing citywide audit of Seattle’s bridges, and the periodic malfunctioning of other bridges, I’m deeply disappointed that the Harrell Administration is declining to use the authority the City Council granted last November to generate up to $100 million in bond funding needed for projects to increase the safety of Seattle’s aging bridge network,” Councilmember Alex Pedersen wrote in a news release.

The Harrell administration, in conjunction with the Seattle Department of Transportation, cites a number of reasons for the decision, among them an interest in waiting to capture federal infrastructure spending. They also call out their desire to first “comprehensively update the inventory of bridge needs and develop a long-term plan” before issuing municipal bonds as funding.

“We currently have a Roadway Structures Business Practice Upgrade (BPU) underway …for maintenance, major rehabilitation, and capital replacement. We have funding for dedicated staff and consulting resources to support this effort, which we expect to complete by late 2023,” as a memo from Kristen Simpson, interim director with SDOT, to Councilmember Pedersen reads.

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Broadly, SDOT claims that it needs more time to process the project plans. Reasons provided for the extended timeline include “time needed to prepare the current pipeline of ready bridge projects,” “the timing of strategic bridge investment planning efforts,” and “the legal and administrative challenges of issuing bonds in 2022.”

Pedersen calls that delay “disappointing” for several reasons, chief among them the example that the West Seattle Bridge has set for the city to more proactively address its perennial problem of aging transportation infrastructure.

The councilmember points out that SDOT’s budget was increased to $718 million for this year; the financial incentive to issue bonds quickly when federal interest rates remain low; his view that federal and state-level transportation spending tend to favor marquee projects like the I-5 Ship Canal Bridge while smaller projects like the rapidly aging Ballard, Fremont, and University bridges lay susceptible to earthquake damage.

“I cannot sit idly by while the can is kicked down the road again. Today I sent a letter to the Biden Administration asking our U.S. transportation officials to accelerate their federal compliance assessment of Seattle’s bridges,” Pedersen continues.

“Federal oversight can be helpful to spur action and results for bridge safety in Seattle, especially for bridges ranked ‘Poor’ and for bridges City leaders promised to fix as early as 2015.”

A spokesperson on behalf of the mayor wrote to MyNorthwest affirming that the interest is there to collaborate with Pedersen, the city’s transportation chair, on “bridge projects when the timing makes fiscal sense.”

“Mayor Harrell hasn’t said ‘no’ to bridge bonds, he’s said ‘not yet.’ Given Council’s authorization for bridge bonding extends three years, Mayor Harrell supports bonding – and various other financing tools – for bridge projects when the timing makes fiscal sense. Mayor Harrell believes he owes City residents fiscal responsibility and does not want to waste valuable tax dollars,” a statement from the mayor’s office reads.

“The City is currently spending $166.9 million on bridge capital investments. The City must complete important and necessary design work still needed before additional seismic retrofit projects are ready to accept this level of funding. A full, detailed report of bridge needs is expected next year. It is fiscally unsound for the City to spend millions in annual debt service (approx. $7 million) for a $100 million bond issuance to sit in the bank untouched this year.”

That $7 million debt service figure contrasts with the council’s summary fiscal note which describes $3 million in cost and pricing adjustments. Pedersen clarified with MyNorthwest that the $3 million figure is money that has already been set aside by the council as debt service for 2022, and the mayor’s office is accounting for 4% interest on the bonds that would accrue principal.

“I believe the interest rate that they can get on bonds is much lower than the 4% that was budgeted. We’re trying to be conservative and assume that the interest rate will be higher than we think it will be … It’s true, $100 million at 4% interest rate would be about $7 million a year if you have a 20-year bond, including the principal.”

Directed at the mayor’s comment about the fiscally unsound nature of paying $7 million in annual debt service, Pedersen again invoked the West Seattle Bridge as an example of why direct action now is preferable to delay, referencing the “kicking the can down the road” sentiment.

Pedersen affirmed the argument that interest rates are only like to increase, making it financially prudent to lock in a 4% interest rate now, although he’s of the mind that it’s possible to find a lower rate on the bonds.

“Learning the lessons of the West Seattle Bridge closure for two years, bridge audits we ordered that show our bridges in poor condition, the promises made by the Move Seattle Levy, the malfunctioning of bridges that we’ve seen ….blocking off all bus and car traffic, it’s urgent. I believe that it is worth that $7 million a year,” Pedersen added.

“The $100 million, when it comes immediately to us, it’s worth $100 million in our hands today. The time value of money is worth more than $100 million spread out over separate several years because we have it today; we can spend it immediately on our immediate needs. It is worth it.”

Another wrinkle to the disagreement between Pedersen and the mayor are their respective positions on how to sell additional transportation levies on the ballot once Move Seattle expires in 2024.

In 2015, Seattle voters passed a transportation levy that highlighted “maintenance and repair projects, such as bridge seismic upgrades.” As Pedersen explains, “SDOT canceled this seismic work in November 2020 after receiving revised cost estimates: Ballard Bridge ($32 million) and the Fremont Bridge ($29 million).” Moving forward with bridge bonds this year would “enable us to fulfill the promise made in 2015.”

SDOT and the mayor are gearing up for running back another transportation levy to presumably fund, at least in part, those seismic upgrades.

“Planning efforts are also underway for addressing the upcoming expiration of the Move Seattle Levy with a funding package that may include new levy initiatives, as well as other potential funding strategies,” SDOT writes.

“The Move Seattle Levy expiration in 2024 also provides an opportunity, in upcoming years, to have a broad community conversation about future transportation needs, priorities, and a comprehensive and stable transportation funding strategy.”

Addressing that comment, Pedersen is skeptical that voters will be persuaded.

“I think we should issue the bonds this year so that we start to make a dent in the backlog of bridge maintenance needs and have bridges as a main feature in the next levy. If we don’t do something now for some of the bridges promised in the 2015 Move Seattle Levy, it’s not ideal for the credibility of the next levy if we have unfulfilled bridge promises.”

SDOT clarifies that it has made “over $166.9 million in bridge capital investments that are currently in progress.” Among actions items for 2022’s capital appropriations are $4.85 million for seismic upgrades to the Ballard and Fremont bridges. Pedersen points out that over 60% of the $166.9 million figure is dedicated solely to the West Seattle Bridge.



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CM Pedersen ‘disappointed’ in mayor’s decision to ‘kick the can’ on citywide bridge repairs