Fairview bridge issues

Closure of the Fairview Avenue North bridge during its replacement

The Seattle Department of Transportation plans to totally demolish the Fairview Avenue North bridge (actually two connected bridges) and build an entirely new one. The Seattle Department of Transportation says the bridge will be closed as early as September 16,2019 and will remain closed for approximately19 months. During construction, the bridge – it is basically in front of the historic Steam Plant Building - will be closed to all through traffic including people walking and riding bikes. Local access to businesses will still be possible. Traffic will be detoured up Eastlake Avenue East to East Aloha Street, then down Aloha to reconnect with Fairview Avenue North. SDOT is installing a new traffic signal at Aloha and Eastlake as well as improving the signal at Aloha and Fairview. For further details from SDOT about the detours and about the bridge project, see the project web site.

Was this bridge closure necessary?

In 2016 the Eastlake Community Council discovered evidence that this bridge closure may not have been necessary. We found that the alternative that SDOT chose was in conflict with recommendations it received from outside engineers that SDOT consulted with about how much of the bridge to demolish. On August 9, 2016, ECC wrote a letter of concern to SDOT director Scott Kubly and to the SDOT Fairview Bridge team; for the ECC letter, click here. On Sept. 2, 2016, SDOT wrote a letter of response to ECC; for the SDOT letter, click here.

On Sept. 8, 2016, ECC responded with a letter to SDOT, the Mayor, four City Councilmembers, and the Move Seattle Oversight Committee; for the ECC letter, click here. On Sept. 5, 2016, the Seattle Times published an article about ECC’s concerns. For the article, click here. Unfortunately, ECC never received a written response from the Mayor or any City Councilmember, and the project went ahead as SDOT had proposed. Below is the background.

A 2014 Value Engineering Study that SDOT commissioned from a panel of outside engineers agreed with SDOT that the west (timber) bridge needs total replacement. But the independent Value Engineering Study disagreed with SDOT that the east (concrete and steel) bridge also requires replacement. The outside engineers challenged SDOT’s claims that the east bridge had to be replaced for seismic reasons; they judged the east bridge to be seismically sounder than most other Seattle bridges, and they recommended that it be seismically strengthened, a much less expensive remedy than the high cost of demolishing and replacing it.

The Eastlake Community Council is concerned that contrary to this outside engineering advice that SDOT itself commissioned, SDOT mistakenly chose the alternative for constructing an entirely new Fairview Avenue bridge, and pushed it through without an environmental impact statement. This full demolition and replacement alternative will cost the public an additional $8 million or more and will be unnecessarily harmful to local businesses and to travel by transit, autos, trucks, bicyclists, and pedestrians.

Further undermining the case against the SDOT’s full replacement alternative is that SDOT’s own Roosevelt to Downtown High Capacity Transit Study has ruled out a streetcar as part of its corridor planning for this area. An early argument for full bridge replacement was the need to support streetcars, but this argument has been overtaken by events. Now we know that the Fairview Avenue North bridge does not need to be built to support streetcars.

ECC is also concerned that SDOT suppressed and misrepresented the 2014 Value Engineering Study in its communications with the Mayor’s office, the City Council, the public, affected businesses, and King County Metro. SDOT (for example on the project web site) has erroneously cited the Value Engineering study as if it backs up SDOT’s plans to demolish both the east and west bridges, not mentioning the study’s recommendation against demolishing the east bridge.

Not only did SDOT not disclose the full recommendations of the Value Engineering Study; it rebuffed requests for the study, such as by the Eastlake Community Council beginning in December 2015. ECC obtained the Study in March 2016 only by filing a public records request two months earlier whereby SDOT was forced by state law to provide it. Even now, the Value Engineering Study is available to the public only here on the ECC website.

An unfortunate consequence of SDOT’s suppression of the Value Engineering Study was to keep it from the public until after the February 23, 2016 deadline for filing an appeal under the State Environmental Policy Act of SDOT’s determination that the full bridge replacement will not have a probable significant adverse impact on the environment and that an environmental impact statement (EIS) is not required.

The following article with more background on the subject, appeared in the summer 2016 issue of the Eastlake News. For convenience, the above link to the Value Engineering Study is provided again here. Following the article is contact information for the Mayor and City Council.

Documents disclose that complete replacement and closure of the Fairview Bridge is unnecessary, and that problems from lack of a second southbound lane have not been studied

The Fairview Avenue bridge over a part of Lake Union is on the same level where Fairview Avenue North is on solid ground, so those who go across it often do not know that it is a bridge. The bridge is just west of the landmarked Steam Plant now occupied by ZymoGenetics, a building which is itself partially over Lake Union, and like the bridge is on pilings rather than solid ground. (The bridge structure can be seen from offshore or the adjacent floating pedestrian walkway).

Turns out there’s also a lot more than meets the eye about the politics of the bridge. Mayor Ed Murray and his Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) have not been on solid ground in their portrayal of the bridge’s condition to the City Council and the voters, in deciding to completely replace it with $27 million in recently approved Move Seattle levy funds, and during construction to cut off all traffic (buses, trucks, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians) for 15 months or more.

To listen to the Mayor and SDOT, you’d think that all this cost and disruption is unavoidable to fix the bridge. You’d think so—and you’d be wrong. Internal SDOT documents whose release was forced by a request made under the state Public Records Act show that only the west side of the bridge needs to be replaced, and that complete replacement and closure are unnecessary and wasteful of levy funds.

The Fairview Bridge is actually two bridge structures side-by-side but with a common paved deck. The west bridge structure (the one facing Lake Union) was built in 1948 (68 years old), consists of a concrete deck sitting on creosoted wood pilings, and is in bad shape. The east bridge structure was built in 1963 (53 years old) is a framework of prestressed concrete girders and sits on pre-cast concrete pilings.

Because SDOT’s plan for replacing both sides with a single big bridge would be so expensive, SDOT commissioned a panel of outside experts to conduct a value engineering study to find cost savings. The panel’s 2014 report was not shared with the public and perhaps not with the Mayor and City Council and was only recently pried loose by our public records request.

Why the value engineering report was suppressed can be seen in its finding that for the east, concrete bridge structure “The condition of the bridge is good in general.” The study further observes: “It is in much better load-carrying and seismic condition than many of the City’s bridge structures.” It judges that with repairs and seismic strengthening it, the east (concrete) side of the Fairview Bridge would not need to be replaced.
The value engineering study further observes: “A seismic strategy to design the new west bridge to help laterally support the east bridge could be employed. This should also improve the seismic resistivity of the east bridge by reducing the demand displacements. Another big advantage of forgoing the east bridge replacement is to minimize impacts to the ZymoGenetics Building.”

The value engineering study found that the older, deteriorating wooden bridge needs replacement but that the newer, concrete bridge doesn’t – it just needs repairs and reinforcements. SDOT continues to cite the value engineering study as having helped it save money, when actually going with an expensive full replacement recommended against by the study, which suggested saving at least $8.2 million with a partial replacement.

Our public records request pried loose the value engineering study after SDOT turned down several informal requests for it by the claim that “The VE study is comprised of a lot of information; it doesn’t do a great job of capturing the necessary context for people outside of the project team.” The study is now posted on the Fairview Bridge page of the Eastlake Community Council web site, http://eastlakeseattle.org. Judge for yourself whether you are capable of understanding it (spoiler alert: you are).

Turns out that SDOT has been quoting selectively from the value engineering study to justify abrupt reversal of its longtime plan to keep traffic moving on Fairview during the bridge replacement. It’s true that the study found that a complete bridge replacement would cost more if traffic were to continue through the corridor than if traffic were to be blocked during construction. But the study also found that either scenario for complete replacement would be far more expensive than just fixing what is broken and leaving unbroken things intact.

If the east bridge structure is in good condition, why is SDOT spending at least $8.2 million of levy funds and an unknown amount of federal and state funds to destroy and replace it? The answer is: to strengthen the Fairview bridge for a future extension of the South Lake Union street car, which currently terminates a block south of the Fairview bridge. SDOT’s August 2014 Alternatives Analysis Discipline Report states that the east (concrete) bridge “is not capable of supporting the streetcar loading.” It also states: “There are no formal proposals to extend the streetcar line northward, but SDOT has determined that the planned replacement for the existing bridges should be designed to accommodate the streetcar.”

It is not clear how high in SDOT it was decided, and whether the Mayor’s office was involved, that the Fairview Bridge should be rebuilt to accommodate a streetcar extension. Certainly the Mayor, City Council, and SDOT should reexamine this decision because SDOT’s Roosevelt to Downtown High Capacity Transit Study (started in 2014 and ongoing) considered a streetcar extension and decided against it. That study favors “rapid ride” type buses because a streetcar on Eastlake Avenue and across the University Bridge would be unacceptably expensive and disruptive. Scheduled to be confirmed later this year by the Mayor and City Council, this decision against a streetcar extension would likely settle the issue for a generation. The Mayor and City Council can legitimately be asked why, if the City is deciding that a streetcar extension is not for this generation, it is spending $8.2 million or more in scarce funds now to enable such an extension that may never happen.

It could be reasonable for streetcar capacity to be an expectation for either full replacement of the bridge or replacement of either the west (wooden) side or east (concrete) side of the bridge. However, it would be unwise for the streetcar criterion to veto the reasonable decision not to replace the east (concrete) side of the bridge when its good condition does not require replacement. If a streetcar extension is favored in some future generation, that is when the east (concrete) side of the bridge should be rebuilt, not now when the $8.2 million or more in funds would be better spent on more pressing transportation needs.

Another 2014 decision that should be revisited by the Mayor, City Council, and SDOT is that the Fairview Bridge construction would leave the same traffic lane format as currently—two lanes northbound but only one lane southbound. Our public record request found no effort by SDOT to analyze the consequences of this imbalance, rather just an assumption that no lanes would be added. But for many decades there were two lanes in each direction, just as there are on other parts of Fairview Avenue North. The reduction to one southbound lane occurred in the early 1990s only as a way to temporarily carve out a bicycle lane on the west (wooden) bridge that was known to be deteriorating and needing eventual replacement.

Increased congestion in the “Mercer Mess” area suggests the need for a second southbound lane on the Fairview Bridge. SDOT’s Roosevelt to Downtown HCT study is now undertaking traffic and bus modeling to ascertain whether having only one southbound lane is sustainable. It is important for the Mayor, City Council, and SDOT to be open to adding to the bridge a second lane southbound if the analyses suggest that one is needed.
The “Move Seattle” transportation levy proposal that Mayor Murray sent to the City Council in May 2015 included in its funded projects to “Replace Seattle’s last timber vehicle bridge (Fairview Avenue).” The City Council passed and the Mayor signed the July ordinance 124796 which put the levy before the voters and which they approved in November 2015. The ordinance’s Attachment A uses this exact same language in setting aside $27 million to “Replace Seattle’s last timber vehicle bridge (Fairview Avenue).”

Contrary to the language of Attachment A to the levy ordinance, the Mayor and City Council are planning to spend some of the $27 million (along with $16 million in federal and state funds) on replacing not just Fairview’s timber bridge, but also the concrete bridge next to it. The recently released SDOT documents show that, at the time that the voters were being told that the funds were only for the timber bridge, the plan was always to spend part of the levy money on replacing the concrete bridge. This may even have been a violation of campaign practices laws.

The SDOT web page about the Fairview bridge project stated during the levy campaign, and still does, that “The current bridge, built more than 65 years ago, needs to be replaced. The timber-supported bridge is structurally deficient and seismically vulnerable.” SDOT here was and is mis-stating the situation, because only the west side is timber-supported and is in bad shape. The voters were not being told that the other half of the bridge is concrete and that SDOT’s own value engineering study found it to be in good condition.

Metro, its bus riders, pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and the businesses that depend on trucks were all legitimately surprised and concerned about SDOT’s abrupt 2015 decision to reverse its previous commitment to them to keep traffic moving on Fairview during bridge construction. The change occurred without any prior notice or public consultation by SDOT. The public records recently released show that the Mayor signed off on the change, with his only concerns being for the impacts on bus service in South Lake Union.

Given the above revelations, it is ironic that the Fairview Bridge was a “poster child” in the lead-up to passage of the Move Seattle transportation levy. The bridge was often cited in the effort to get the City Council to authorize the levy ordinance, and it was the actual backdrop for the Sept. 8, 2015 levy campaign kickoff event at which Murray was the keynote speaker.

Did the Mayor know that his decision for a full Fairview Bridge replacement and a complete closure to traffic was wasteful, unnecessary, and contrary to the levy language? The information received from our public record request includes all briefing materials that SDOT provided the Mayor as a part of its successful effort to get him to approve the complete bridge rebuild with a complete closure for 15 months or more. Nothing in what SDOT provided the Mayor mentions the option of replacing only the west half of the bridge or that a value engineering study by an outside expert panel concluded that this would be a reasonable alternative.

If the Mayor was kept in the dark by SDOT, it did not help that the information blackout extended to the public. Keeping the value engineering results from the public made it difficult for everyone to independently judge SDOT’s claims on the need to replace the whole bridge. The Mayor and City Council would have benefited from independent analysis, but SDOT was successful in foreclosing it.

If the full bridge replacement is allowed to go forward, buses, bicyclists, pedestrians, motorists, and trucks will face major detours and difficulties. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center will suffer as most of this traffic detours onto E. Aloha Street through its formerly peaceful campus. The historic Steam Plant and its occupant ZymoGenetics will be endangered by bridge construction just two feet from the outer walls.

SDOT is completing designs for an entirely new Fairview bridge and its determination of nonsignificance under the State Environmental Policy Act escaped challenge. But SDOT has not yet advertised for bids nor let any construction contracts. It is not too late to reverse its failures to be truthful or transparent, and to reverse its poorly reasoned, wasteful and disruptive decision for total bridge replacement and a 15 month total closure.

Comment to the Mayor and City Council

Contact the Mayor and City Council. Mayor Jenny Durkan accepts comments from the public by e-mail: jenny.durkan@seattle.gov. You can also reach Mayor Durkan by letter at 600 Fourth Avenue, 7th floor, P.O. Box 94749, Seattle, WA 98124-4749, or by fax at 206-684-5360. The Mayor’s reception phone is 206-684-4000, where you can also leave a voice mail afterhours and on weekends.

Be sure to communicate with the nine City Councilmembers individually, rather than by a group e-mail or letter (which is far less likely to be heeded). Please identify yourself as a resident of Eastlake, and preferably include your street address. The City Council e-mail addresses are as follows: abel.pacheco@seattle.gov, sally.bagshaw@seattle.gov, teresa.mosqueda@seattle.gov, bruce.harrell@seattle.gov, lisa.herbold@seattle.gov, mike.obrien@seattle.gov, lorena.gonzalez@seattle.gov, debora.juarez@seattle.gov, and kshama.sawant@seattle.gov.

You can also reach the City Councilmembers by letter (again, preferably one for each, not to all as a group) at 600 Fourth Avenue, 2nd floor, P.O. Box 34025, Seattle, WA 98124-4025, or by fax at 206-684-8587. Be sure to sign and to identify yourself as a resident of Eastlake; preferably include your street address. Please also send a copy of ECC c/o Lake Union Mail,117 E. Louisa St. Each Councilmember also has a voice mail number listed at http://www.seattle.gov/council or by calling 206-684-8888. Please share with ECC your message and any reply, to info@eastlakeseattle.org, or c/o ECC at 117 E. Louisa St. #1, Seattle 98102-3278.