Progressives who don't want to see the planet melt hoped Seattle would replace the cracked West Seattle Bridge with a new bridge that also incorporated space for a light rail line. That wish isn't coming true.
Instead, Mayor Jenny Durkan settled on a middle option she announced in a press conference on Wednesday: Seattle will repair the bridge now, and in the future the city will explore creating a parallel, separate bridge for light rail, bikes, and pedestrians.
The Seattle Department of Transportation, however, still has questions about a multimodal bridge. SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe said it was way too soon to say whether the project was even feasible. Sound Transit's in-the-works West Seattle light rail extension plan doesn't include multimodal options.
While local urbanists are more bullish about the prospects—they say this is the best thing they've ever heard from Durkan—they're skeptical about whether she'll follow through.
Durkan announced the city will repair the cracked bridge for $47 million (plus $666,667 in annual maintenance costs) to give it another 15 to 40 years of life. This was the fastest option for restoring traffic on the bridge and preventing West Seattle from being mostly an island for the better half of a decade. However, the repaired bridge won't be operational until at least 2022, Durkan said.
Part of the appeal of replacing the bridge was the potential for Sound Transit to add a West Seattle light rail extension onto the new bridge and marry the two projects. However, issues plagued this transit wet dream; the rapid rebuild SDOT eyed wouldn't have been able to support the train, SDOT said in a statement, and the city's engineering consultants stated a new bridge would have to be built higher than the current 140-foot bridge with about an 8% grade. Light rail trains can't handle that kind of incline.
Sound Transit is currently in the environmental review process for the route extensions to West Seattle and Ballard. A big controversy in both light rail extensions is whether the light rail will go into a tunnel in Ballard and West Seattle. Keeping light rail on a high-rise bridge is cheaper. Long before COVID-19 did a number on the economy and the West Seattle Bridge crapped out, Sound Transit said Seattle would need to raise $700 million in third-party money for a West Seattle tunnel option that would only cover a hillside tunnel from Delridge Station to Alaskan Junction. No one has come forward with a spare $700 million.
Draft environmental reviews won't be done until mid-2021. A final review will follow, and Sound Transit will choose a construction project by 2023. Durkan's plan—which seems to favor the light rail bridge crossing since it will be multimodal, Doug Trumm, executive director of The Urbanist tells me—would require Sound Transit to go back to the drawing board.
"The Sound Transit 3 plan that voters approved only authorized construction of a light rail bridge," Sound Transit spokesperson Rachelle Cunningham told me. "Changing that plan to a multimodal crossing would require additional funding and planning time."
Cunningham said Sound Transit was "open to discussions with funding partners" about other plans. However, suburban members of the Sound Transit board weren't keen on tunnel options for West Seattle—board members from Edmonds and Everett signaled they wouldn't add funding costs to ST3 back in 2019.
Jonathan Hopkins, the political director for Seattle Subway, said Durkan's idea was "one of the best things I’ve heard out of the mayor’s mouth since she became mayor." Hopkins pointed to the Tilikum Crossing Bridge in Portland as an example of a rail, bike, and pedestrian bridge that works. He called Durkan's idea the kind of "big thinking that a first-rate city does." Still, he's skeptical.
"I want to believe her," Hopkins said, "But action is required."
While each Sound Transit light rail station has a multimodal budget, Trumm with The Urbanist said, Durkan's idea "might break the bank." Durkan will need to persuade Sound Transit board members to agree with her. "Is Mayor Durkan ready to help foot the bill for a West Seattle Link multimodal trail if that's Sound Transit's condition?" Trumm mused.
Durkan said construction on this plan wouldn't start for at least seven years. She also said in the next 10 to 20 years Seattle needs to get real about ditching cars for other transit options. This multimodal bridge could finally affirm Durkan's self-dubbed title of "climate mayor." The bridge also satisfies an SDOT goal to "create redundancy" in transportation options. What that means is that if one mode, like a 36-year-old vehicle bridge, falls apart, commuters still have another way to travel to West Seattle.
Still, funding and structural uncertainties remain around Durkan's plan. Like, will the bridge still need to be built over 140-feet tall? Listen, I'm no Tour de France King of the Mountain on a bike, but I'd ride up that bridge just for the thrill.