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May 25, 2018
The 88-year-old Magnolia Bridge has seen better days. It was hit by a landslide in 1997, then damaged by the Nisqually earthquake just four years later.
The city of Seattle has been trying to replace the hobbled structure ever since.
The bridge remains safe and open to traffic — it carries 17,000 vehicles a day over railroad tracks and Port of Seattle operations — but maintenance costs continue to mount, and retrofitting the existing 3,000-foot structure wouldn't save the city any money.
The Seattle Department of Transportation has been plotting its next move, and it won't involve a replacement bridge.
A 2007 study determined a new bridge would cost $262 million, but there wasn't any funding available then. In the intervening years, estimates have gone way up. The latest best guess is $350 million to $400 million.
In 2015, Seattle voters passed a nine-year, $930 million transportation levy that didn't fund a new bridge, but the measure did include $1 million to study the options. It also funded emergency and short-term closure plans for the bridge.
The resulting Magnolia Bridge Planning Study lists three major alternatives, all comprising a package of smaller projects meant to improve existing street connections or establish new links to Elliott Bay or links between Interbay and Thorndyke Avenue West.
SCJ Alliance was the transportation consultant for the study.
Wes Ducey, project manager for SDOT, said the alternatives built on the city's last effort to replace the bridge in the mid-2000s.
That involved collecting extensive input from stakeholders such as residents, businesses, the Port of Seattle and BNSF Railway. The new alternatives also take into account the needs of King County Metro and Sound Transit, which is planning a light-rail line on 15th Avenue.
The menu of options presented in the study offers 10 discrete projects, a handful of which could be built independently. Some of the other options would only make sense in conjunction with other projects. Two options — a Wheeler Street bridge and a new perimeter road — were declared not feasible for reasons like not enough room or too intrusive.
Ducey said neighbors have expressed fears about losing the Magnolia Bridge and facing changes. The city will begin collecting online comments next month to see if there is a preference for any of the new alternatives.
An advantage to organizing the alternatives into packages of smaller projects is that they can be funded — and built — in phases, less subject to the vagaries of megaproject funding.
Ducey said SDOT will have funding estimates by the time the agency begins the seeking public comments.
Once an alternative has been selected, it'll be up the up to the mayor and City Council to decide what to do next. The current transportation levy expires after 2024.
Meantime, the bridge isn’t going anywhere. Ducey said he “can’t put a life span on it,” but the bridge is being regularly monitored to ensure it’s safe.
The Magnolia Bridge is the least-used of three entries into the neighborhood. Other options for drivers include the West Dravus Street, which sees 20,000 vehicles a day, and West Emerson Street, which is crossed by 25,000 vehicles a day.
Jon Silver can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.