After an audit found Seattle’s bridge maintenance to be chronically underfunded, Transportation Director Sam Zimbabwe said Tuesday he’s eager to boost the program — but it will take at least a couple years.
The COVID-19 economic downturn, combined with multiple demands for other work, will make it hard to boost annual bridge-maintenance funds from $7 million a year to the $34 million benchmark that Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) staff mentioned to auditors.
“We’re facing a ton of resource challenges across everything we do,” Zimbabwe said in an interview. “We’re not getting anywhere close to $34 million yet.”
He wouldn’t disclose how much SDOT will seek in Mayor Jenny Durkan’s 2021 budget proposal, expected to be released in two weeks. However, Zimbabwe said he’s committed to bridge maintenance even if other areas take a budget hit.
In addition, Zimbabwe said, “A robust and sustainable maintenance program is something that will take us a couple years to do,” until the department can reorganize and recruit skilled people.
The Move Seattle property tax levy funds 10 bridges for seismic improvements, apart from the regular maintenance fund. SDOT is finishing two this year, but said this spring there might not be enough money to strengthen all the others by 2024.
And that $7 million for major maintenance is only a fraction of the $47 million total city bridge and structures annual budget that includes operations.
Five staff from the city auditing department studied 77 bridge spans for the audit released Monday. Of those, only 22 were in good condition, 50 in fair condition and five in poor condition — Magnolia, Second Avenue Extension South, the approach spans on both ends of the University drawbridge, and the timber-supported Fairview Bridge that’s now being rebuilt.
Seattle’s problems aren’t unique. Nationally, there’s an estimated backlog of $123 billion in bridge repairs, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Alex Pedersen, chair of the City Council’s Transportation & Utilities Committee, said that developer-impact fees, which exist in many suburbs, have been discussed by the council and might be a source of maintenance cash.
Another option is tolling, which under state law may be applied to city roadways with a citizen vote. Durkan initially set a 2021 goal to begin London-style tolls to reduce central-city congestion. Seattle is moving too slowly to meet that timeline and Zimbabwe could make no new predictions Tuesday.
“I do think there’s a discussion we have to have as a city — what we do or do not fund. There’s also an urgent need to decarbonize our transportation system,” he said.
SDOT officials repeated their view that this year’s emergency West Seattle Bridge closure isn’t related to maintenance-fund shortfalls. After shear cracks first appeared in 2013, the agency increased its inspections and monitoring, until cracks suddenly accelerated in March 2020.
The bridge crisis did, however, provoke Pedersen to request the audit.