SEATTLE – Councilmember Alex Pedersen issued the following statement after the Harrell administration declined to pursue bond funding for bridge safety, which was authorized by the Council:
“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.
In a city carved by waterways and ravines within a hazardous earthquake zone, we rely on our bridges to connect every community, enable all modes of transportation, and sustain our economy. Keeping One Seattle physically unified and getting back to the basics of sound government should include keeping our bridges open and safe by receiving the seismic upgrades and vital maintenance they need. By choosing NOT to use the $100 million in bridge safety funds authorized last year by the Council, the Harrell Administration would be essentially tossing aside two years of work and lessons learned the hard way about the condition of Seattle’s bridges.
The City Council’s proactive authorization of the $100 million was supported not only by many residents and businesses, but also by construction labor unions who communicated their support in previous press releases, including on November 2, 2021.
The bottom line is that residents, businesses, and workers expect and deserve to have their bridges open and safe — and not accelerating the needed repairs and upgrades this year could put Seattle’s bridges at risk.
Council Budget Action SDOT-505-A-002-2022 requested the plan from the Executive on how it would utilize up to $100 million authorized via Council Bill 120224 (which became Ordinance 126480). It was due by March 31, 2022.
“Of the appropriations in the 2022 budget for the Seattle Department of Transportation’s General Expense Budget Summary Level, $3,090,000 is appropriated solely for debt service on up to $100 million of limited tax general obligation (LTGO) bonds. Furthermore, none of the money so appropriated may be spent until the Seattle Department of Transportation provides a written report to Council detailing: (1) how much of the $100 million of authorized LTGO bonds will be issued in 2022; (2) what projects will be funded by the issuance of these bonds; and (3) what appropriations are necessary to support these projects. Council anticipates that SDOT will provide such a written report by March 31, 2022.”
In a 4-page response dated March 31, 2022, the Executive states, “SDOT’s recommendation for programming bond investments in bridges is to not issue bonds at this time.” Instead SDOT points to planning through 2023 and potential work if/when voters consider a potential new ballot measure that would presumably not be operational until 2025 – 10 years after the failed promises for bridges of the previous Move Seattle levy and 5 years after the West Seattle Bridge cracked and closed.
I’d like to briefly address some of the reasons the Executive provided for deciding not to issue these bridge bonds in 2022. Unfortunately, the excuses from the bureaucracy are the same ones we heard the past two years.
- Not Ready: SDOT officials say they are not ready. This is disappointing because of the lessons learned from the two-year closure of the West Seattle Bridge, the disturbing citywide audit of Seattle’s bridges issued over 18 months ago, the periodic malfunctioning of other bridges, and the time that has elapsed since City Council granted the authority in November of last year.
- Costs: SDOT officials indicate that future debt service payments could be a burden. But last year we increased SDOT’s budget from approximately $636 million to over $718 million. Considering the hundreds of millions of dollars SDOT spends, hearing executive officials say they cannot find $7 million dollars a year, 1% of their total budget, to boost bridges seems to indicate a lack of prioritization for bridges. Moreover, the interest rate we could lock in this year (and keep locked in at the same level for the next 20 years) could end up being lower than the estimate from our approved budget.
One hundred million dollars today to address Seattle’s immediate infrastructure needs could be worth more than $100 million trickling out over 20 years because relatively low interest rates would be locked in place for a period of 20 years. Delaying the issuance of the bonds could end up costing more if future interest rates rise. Moreover, bonding provides a large sum upfront to obtain more of what we need for our city’s infrastructure when we need it—now.
- Other Levels of Government: SDOT officials say we should wait to capture funding from the federal government and/or State government. But the reality is the federal and Washington State governments focus on relatively large bridge projects in such as the Columbia River Bridge, the I-5 ship canal bridge, and the western portion of State Highway 520. The time is overdue for the City to step up to address its own aging bridges that connect our region as well as our communities.
- Waiting Until the Next Levy in 2024/2025: Among the first words in the 2015 Move Seattle ballot measure were “bridge seismic upgrades.” Those seismic upgrades specifically included the Ballard Bridge that connects to Interbay and the Fremont Bridge that leads downtown. But after recommitting to those bridges in 2018, SDOT canceled this seismic work in November 2020 after receiving revised cost estimates: Ballard Bridge ($32 million) and the Fremont Bridge ($29 million). The bridge bonds could enable us to fulfill the promise made in 2015. Not delivering on those promises now imperils the ability of people to trust the integrity and promises of any future levy. Moreover, a future levy would not be operating until 2025—five years after the West Seattle Bridge cracked and closed – potentially putting more of Seattle’s bridges at risk.
The letter also claims investments of $166.9 million for bridges, but the irony is that over 60% of that is to fix the West Seattle Bridge.
As Chair of Seattle’s Transportation Committee, 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. 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.
Going forward, I would like to see the Harrell Administration include robust bridge infrastructure investment, including bonding, in their budget proposal that we expect to receive this September for the calendar year 2023.
Regardless of whether the Harrell Administration reconsiders their disappointing decision so that we can boost funding for bridge safety this year, I look forward to continued collaboration with Mayor Harrell and his strong team on several priorities impacting our city.”
Last year, Mayor Harrell said he wanted to “accelerate the repair and maintenance of aging facilities like the West Seattle Bridge, Magnolia Bridge, and other critical infrastructure needs that connect our neighborhoods and people.” The audit of Seattle’s bridges that I ordered after former Mayor Durkan closed the cracked West Seattle Bridge shows problematic conditions of the aging Ballard Bridge, University Bridge, 2nd Avenue South, West Seattle’s lower bridge, and other City-owned bridges.
Shortly after the November 2021 election when the City Council approved the 2022 budget and authorized up to $100 million in bonds I said, “Today this Council delivers the authority for bridge bonds and, early next year, we expect the new Administration to use that authority to keep our infrastructure safe, to keep our economy moving, and to keep our communities connected.” But the Harrell Administration’s decision this week essentially rejects that financial authorization.
At City Council’s request, SDOT already provided a project list in September 2021. While we had been relying on SDOT to expand that list of bridge work and determine how the full $100 million could be used, the bridge safety improvements could have included the following projects:
(1) $61 million for Bridge Seismic – Phase III (MC-TR-C008). Seismic upgrades or other improvements to the Ballard Bridge ($32 million) and the Fremont Bridge ($29 million). The first words in the 2015 Move Seattle ballot measure were “bridge seismic upgrades.” But after recommitting to those bridges in 2018, SDOT canceled this seismic work in November 2020 after receiving revised cost estimates. The bridge bonds could enable the promise made in 2015 to be fulfilled.
(2) $29.5 million for Bridge Rehabilitation and Replacement – Phase II (MC-TR-C039). This funding could support rehabilitation of the Fauntleroy Expressway ($6.7 million), Spokane Street Swing Bridge Hydraulic Overhaul ($5.1 million), Magnolia Bridge Structural Rehabilitation ($5.5 million), and University Bridge Rehabilitation ($6.2 million). These projects were identified in SDOT’s September 2021 response to Section 4 of ORD 126327, which requested that SDOT provide a list of projects eligible for bond financing. In addition, $6 million for Magnolia Bridge Replacement Project (MC-TR-C083) to support a type, size, and location study for the Magnolia Bridge, the eventual replacement of which would need to be funded by other means.
(3) $9.5 million for Structures Major Maintenance (MC-TR-C112). The Council created this project in the 2021 Adopted Budget in response to the City Auditor’s 2020 report on SDOT bridge maintenance. The mayor’s proposed budget would allocate approximately $17 million for bridge maintenance, so this would boost the amount so that it’s closer to the minimum recommendation of the City Auditor.
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