The Voice for Industry
February 11, 2010
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A Bridge Stuck In Troubled Waters

President Clinton became somewhat notorious for constructing so many metaphorical "Bridges to the 21st Century" during his 1993-2001 tenure as Commander In Chief.

The South Park Bridge will never attain the cosmic status of all the Clinton bridges, but it does a pretty good job illustrating what's wrong with public transportation planning and governance in our state and region.

The bridge crosses the Duwamish River to link South Park to the rest of south Seattle. It is closed for the next few days for repairs. But the big news is the bridge could be closed for good, maybe by the end of 2010, unless it receives an infusion of about $100 million in cash fast from the federal government.

This dire possibility is the outcome of a two decade struggle by King County and the city governments of Seattle and Tukwila to figure out who owns the bridge and who should pay how much to replace it.

Part of the problem is rooted in the state's dysfunctional system for annexing unincorporated areas to cities. After the bridge was built by King County in the late 1920s near the growing site of Boeing Field, much of the surrounding countryside was gobbled up through annexations by Seattle and Tukwila. As a result, government boundary lines and legal responsibilities wound up dicing and slicing up the bridge route as follows.

Approaching the bridge from the north, motorists travel 16th Avenue South, which is inside the City of Seattle. From the north end of the bridge to its mid point, you are traveling through the City of Tukwila. From the mid point of the bridge to the south end, you are in unincorporated King County and you remain in KC until you drive by the County Line Tavern before continuing down 14th Avenue South, which is back in the City of Seattle.

But, before traveling down 14th you should stop at the County Line and suck down four or five beers so you can better comprehend how this all came to be and why there's a pretty decent chance the bridge is toast.

Washington was a US territory for 35 years before it was granted statehood in 1889. That was the third longest period of time that any territory waited to become a state. By the time statehood arrived, our founders were obsessed with "local control." This was due to their frustrations with territorial officials, who received their authority from the powers-that-be in Washington DC instead of people around here.

As a result, our state constitution was written to strictly curb the power of the state while giving as much power as possible to counties, cities and towns. Our system was also festooned with as many local elected officials as possible to assure accountability and ample opportunities for citizens to "throw the bums out." The local bias of the constitution was later enhanced by generous powers of initiative and referendum to assure the people could put just about any proposition on the ballot for a popular vote.

Great. It was and is a terrific structure for local control, local elected officials, would-be local office holders, local political activists, families and friends of local elected officials and activists, and complainers or visionaries of all types, stripes and persuasions.

But, when the automobile entered the landscape at the start of the 20th Century, it also turned out to be one of the worst systems to build regional networks of roads, highways or bridges and don't even go there if the subject is Viaducts.

Which layer of government pays what and who is in charge of what? Because the state possesses limited powers to tell local governments what to do, many projects are resolved on a case by case basis, which is great for government planners, environmental reviewers, reviewer reviewers, lawyers, lobbyists, and community outreach specialists. But, it is a pretty lousy system for setting up rebar and pouring concrete.

Combine this ad hoc transportation "system" with the tortured "ownership" structure of the South Park Bridge, and the result was nearly two decades of government bickering.

Nearly 20 years after engineers first identified the need to replace the bridge, the public finance plan presently stacks up as follows.

Tukwila gave King County about $2 million in cash and agreed to buy a high maintenance county swimming pool for another million. In exchange, King County took responsibility for the worn-our bridge.

The county plans to come up with about $30 million to help build a new bridge. That money will most likely come from fees charged to unincorporated county residents, the vast majority of whom live in east King County and most of whom probably believe "South Park" is a not a place in Seattle, but an A+ cartoon show on cable TV.

Seattle, the major public property owner surrounding the bridge, has agreed to contribute no funding because, well, because it's Seattle. But, Seattle did agree that if it someday maybe annexes the new bridge, it will then probably almost certainly accept responsibility for bridge maintenance. Unless, of course, three pot smokers from Fremont conduct a successful initiative drive that forbids the use of city taxes for bridges or anything else that might impact the Himalayan glaciers that aren't melting as fast as we thought they were but are still melting too fast for comfort.

But the real key to the deal was the local governments rearched 100 percent complete agreement that they should ask the federal government for $99 million to round out the construction budget.

The request was submitted to a federal stimulus program. A decision is expected February 17. The South Park Bridge is competing with projects from all over the nation as well as a City of Seattle proposal to help fund the badly needed and extremely chic Two-Way Mercer project in South Lake Union.

The South Park Bridge is extremely not chic and it is not clear what kind of shot it has at hitting federal pay dirt.

About 20,000 vehicles use the bridge every work day. Trucks account for about 14 percent of the traffic flow. Most of the traffic is expected to divert to the already crowded First Avenue South Bridge.

County planners believe the detour will take most bridge users about 3 miles out of their way. That doesn't include stops at the County Line to contemplate the not so metaphorical links between the sorry tale of the South Park Bridge and the still uncertain futures of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and State Route 520.

Major construction work began on I-405 in Renton

Many I-405 drivers in Renton have noticed large bridge piers going up to support the new Benson Road S. bridge. On Thursday, Feb. 4, crews started placeing the first of 20 girders (large I-beam supports) that span the freeway. To safely lift these into place, they'll close lanes and coordinate with the Washington State Patrol to perform rolling slowdowns. They'll work most nights until the last girder is set into place around Friday, Feb. 12. For a detailed work schedule, be sure to visit the I-405 Construction Web site,

The rolling slowdowns will occur between 112th Ave. SE and I-5 as part of the Renton Stage 2 widening project. If you're in the area, we suggest you use alternative routes like I-5 and I-90 otherwise you could experience 15-minute delays or more.

What do you mean "rolling slowdown?"

To perform a rolling slowdown, Washington State Patrol troopers line their vehicles across the freeway in front of traffic and travel at a slow pace. When they get the word that a girder is safely in place, they speed up and allow traffic to pass.

East Marginal Way Grade Seperation

Feb 15, 2010-mid 2011 Duwamish Ave S will be fully closed to through traffic (except local access). In addition, the right lane of S Spokane St between the river and East Marginal Way will be closed for the duration of the project.

Sodo Construction Update

-Lane closure on the 1st Ave S Bridge over the Argo yard, Feb 18, 9AM to Noon, for inspection.

This information can also be found online:

Lane closure on Aurora Bridge

-Feb 22-24 9AM to Noon Crews will close the northbound right lane over the Aurora Bridge daily for maintenance work.

Upcoming Paving Projects

Bridging the Gap dollars at work.

- Mid March Crews will be paving Airport Way S between S Royal Brougham Way and S Spokane St.
- Mid April Crews will be paving S Dearborn St between 5th Ave S and 10th Ave S.
- May Crews will be paving S Columbian Way between 15th Ave S and Beacon Ave S.

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