FILE — West Seattle High Rise Bridge

The West Seattle High Rise Bridge in Seattle, Washington on a cloudy day.

(The Center Square) – Of 77 bridges in Seattle, only 22 are in good condition, a city audit found.

“Over the past 14 years, the average amount SDOT spent on bridge maintenance was $6.6 million annually,” city auditors wrote. “However, according to knowledgeable SDOT officials, the City is not spending enough to keep its bridges in good condition and avoid costly future repairs.”

The Seattle Department of Transportation’s $739 million budget makes up about 12 percent of Seattle’s $6 billion total budget.

Department officials announced in June that it has canceled more than $58 million in transportation projects in light of the city’s $25 million deficit brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions put in place to slow its spread.

SDOT officials have estimated that bridges over 60 years old may require as much as $34 million in maintenance costs per year.

Both the University and Magnolia Bridges were rated by auditors as poor. The two bridges were built in 1919 and 1930, respectively, and carry more than 56,000 vehicles every day combined.

Seattle’s heavily used West Seattle High-Rise Bridge carried more than 100,000 vehicles per day before it was closed for repairs in March and was ranked by auditors as fair.

The West Seattle bridge is not expected to reopen until well after 2021 if repairs are financially or structurally feasible, according to estimates from Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office.

In a response to the audit, SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe contended that the issues leading to the closure of the West Seattle Bridge "do not appear to be the result of any deficiency in our bridge maintenance program.”

The audit was requested by Seattle City Council member and chair of its transportation committee, Alex Pedersen, who expressed hope the audit would better inform the council as it debates the 2021 city budget later this month.

“In a city defined by its many waterways, our bridges connect us,” Pedersen said. “And this audit report proves city government must do a better job investing in this basic infrastructure. I am hopeful that Mayor Durkan and the City Council will pay close attention to this audit report and respond appropriately during the 2021 budget discussions to ensure that critical infrastructure does not continue to deteriorate with potentially disastrous consequences.”

The audit further found that the SDOT has sat on roughly 7 percent of its bridge maintenance funds since 2006. Zimbabwe said in his reply that this underspending was due to understaffing within the department.

The audit also contends that while the SDOT likely requires greater funding, it is spreading its time and resources too thin on other work.

“SDOT estimates that 20 percent of their bridge maintenance staff capacity is dedicated to performing reimbursable work for other divisions within SDOT, other City departments, or other local governments,” auditors wrote. “This means that two out of every ten hours of SDOT’s bridge inspection and maintenance crew work are not being used on the upkeep of Seattle’s bridges, but to help supplement the department’s budget.”

SDOT's response also says it could take until the end of 2023 to make changes responding to the auditors 10 recommendations.

In its 2017 report, The American Society of Civil Engineers found that four in 10 of the entire country’s bridges are 50 years old while nearly one in ten were “structurally deficient.”

The city bridge audit will be presented to the Seattle City Council on Wednesday.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.