By Lisa Herbold
Seattle is a city of hills and water; thus we are also a city of bridges. Our bridges are critical for mobility and both the local and regional economy. Bridges are also critical transit infrastructure. That’s why I, along with Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Andrew Lewis, have introduced legislation, along with a companion budget action for 2021, that would create a new $20 vehicle license fee (VLF) to pay for critical bridge maintenance throughout the city. The fee, if it’s approved by the Council this week, will be added to the existing $20 fee that funds additional Metro bus hours through the Seattle Transportation Benefit District.
The closure of the West Seattle Bridge on March 23 placed Seattle’s dependence on its bridges in stark relief. Every person and business in West Seattle, or anyone going to West Seattle, has felt the impact of this closure. Before it was closed, the West Seattle Bridge carried 17,000 daily transit riders on 13 routes making 900 daily trips. Two of these routes—the RapidRide C Line and Route 120—were among the top 10 routes for ridership in all of King County.
But the West Seattle Bridge is hardly the only vulnerable bridge in Seattle; for decades, funding for critical maintenance has fallen short, allowing the city’s bridges to fall into further and further disrepair. In September, the City Auditor released an audit, requested by Councilmember Pedersen, that focused on 77 bridges owned and operated by the Seattle Department of Transportation. That audit reported that bridge funding is well below the minimum annual $34 million level needed for the long-term health of this critical infrastructure.
The audit notes the overall condition of SDOT’s bridges has declined during the last decade and that Seattle is “not spending enough on the upkeep and preservation of its bridges, and risks becoming out of compliance with federal regulations.” This is, unfortunately, consistent with previous findings on the state of Seattle’s bridges, including an SDOT report from 2013 that found that 43 of the city’s bridges were “functionally obsolete,” and suggested that the city had a bridge maintenance backlog of nearly $2 billion.
We must address this underinvestment and protect our Frequent Transit Network, which includes all routes that operate with frequencies of 15 minutes or less for most of the day.
SDOT’s concern about a $47 million repair for the West Seattle Bridge was based largely on the fact that a repaired bridge would cost $500,000 a year to maintain. That’s twice the maintenance estimate for a new bridge, but SDOT’s experts estimated that the repairs would add another 30 to 40 years to the bridge’s useful life. When I learned this, it felt like a challenge to do my part to be a better steward of our public assets. I asked myself, “Why build a new bridge, at nearly ten times the cost of repairing it, just to avoid the higher costs of maintaining the bridge we have?”
I’m a passionate advocate for bus service funding. I agree that we must increase direct investments in transit service as well. This is not an either or question, but a question of how. In the near term, here is what we are doing and how we can do more:
- Earlier this year, the Council increased the size of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed Proposition 1 sales tax measure from 0.1 percent to 0.15 percent and reduced the amount it included for maintenance and capital investments in order to focus funding on service hours.
- Thanks to the passage of Proposition 1, which renewed the Seattle Transportation Benefit District, there is at least $23 million available from reserves from the last STBD to add more transit service to the system
- The proposed VLF “increase” for bridge maintenance is $3.6 million for 2021, increasing to $7.2 million in 2022. I would support revisiting the potential for spending this additional $3.6 million on transit service in 2022.
COVID-19 has changed our transit landscape and will continue to do so throughout 2021. Metro, for example, recently reported a 60 percent drop in bus ridership in 2020. SDOT has proposed a 2021 plan for the new STBD that moves $8 million to budget reserves rather than adding more transit hours. I don’t want to allocate funds for service capacity in 2021 that we can’t spend.
Seattle isn’t alone in underfunding the maintenance of our bridges. Nationally, we would need to spend an additional $25 billion a year until 2032 to adequately fund our nation’s bridges. But we didn’t wait for the federal government to enact policies like a $15 minimum wage, or to fund legal assistance to help people avoid deportation. Seattle led the way. While this proposal won’t fully fund bridges, is a necessary down payment for our key bridges that we can, and should, make.
Lisa Herbold is a Seattle City Council member representing District 1, which includes West Seattle and South Park.