The West Seattle Bridge (officially the Jeanette Williams Memorial Bridge), is the primary route of access between West Seattle and the rest of the city. Constructed in 1924, then reconstructed between 1981 and 1984 after damage sustained in a 1978 vessel incident, the bridge spans the east and west channels that form the mouth of the Duwamish River at Elliott Bay, crossing over Harbor Island. The bridge was closed in March of 2020 after rapidly spreading cracks were discovered along the underside, necessitating a major repair.
Bridges need to be able to stand up to repeated seasonal impact, dynamic traffic loads, and naturally occurring changes in concrete and steel — materials which expand in warm temperatures and contract in the cold. To stabilize the bridge and help prevent further cracking, the lateral bearings atop Pier 18 will need to be replaced.
It may help to think of lateral bearings in bridges as shock-absorbers, or slabs of a dense material sandwiched between two heavy steel plates. When these bearings are compressed too far, they bulge out at the top and bottom, locking together two critical parts of the bridge which normally move in different ways. The bridge can’t respond to the dynamic changes in weight or temperature as it was designed to. There’s no more “give.” This limits the motion of the entire structure, causing uneven tension points across the bridge’s length. Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) doesn’t know yet if repair is technically or financially feasible, but admits that repairs would likely only restore a decade of life to the bridge.
Laura Sinai, a Seattle Central College professor who lives in West Seattle, says the stay-at-home order is impacting her more than the bridge at the moment, but that won’t always be the case. “I’m set up to stay home, of course, so I don’t see any impact. In fact, in some ways it helps us to be more responsible about staying home — no temptation to walk around Green Lake.”
Sinai says that when she needed to reach the other side recently (“for something related to making masks, so it felt legit”), that it took her about 20 extra minutes each way, but that’s with the minimal traffic on the roads now. She’s not looking forward to what that delay will mean for her commute when the stay-at-home order is lifted, or when she’s asked to return to campus. “Before the closure, I was getting up early so I could be on the road by 6 a.m. to avoid the worst traffic. Now I’m guessing that would be more like 5 a.m. — or earlier, ugh!”
SDOT’s Blog and the West Seattle Blog are two of the best sources for past and future information about the closure. “It’s our premiere news service for information,” said Sinai, who says the closure still came as a shock. “A few people who read the paper more carefully knew that city engineers had found cracks back in the fall, but the rest of us were totally flabbergasted.”
How did the bridge closure announcement affect the collective mood of West Seattle residents? “After our jubilation at finally being our own city, knowing that all the Husky Deli ice cream was ours, and that the outsiders would stay away from Alki beach, it’s been a pretty somber discussion,” said Sinai, who added that housing prices in her area were going down because of the closure — and hopes the same is true of rent — as West Seattle is no longer “just ten minutes from downtown.”
Sinai says there’s also been some confusion about who is allowed to use the lower bridge. At first it appeared open only for shipping transport trucks, emergency workers, and essential workers. “But since then, I’ve been told that it’s only the first two, and emergency workers like police and fire fighters. I’ve also heard that the police have motorcycle cops there to give tickets to the wrong users. I sure hope that all hospital workers are allowed to use the lower bridge!”
Sinai says she doesn’t think the city will have the bridge open by their proposed deadline of 2021. “I’m hoping that they will add light rail to the new bridge, so who knows how long it will take. I’m not optimistic.”