The Ship Canal Bridge is falling apart and WSDOT doesn’t have the money to fix it

By MARK HARMSWORTH  | 
Jun 10, 2019
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Over the last few years, concrete has started falling from the Ship Canal Bridge.

King 5 reported two separate instances of material hitting a car and boat. Both were reported to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) in August 2015. 

While WSDOT has denied the bridge has been the source of the material, in a recent report, it is apparent they are seriously concerned with the state of disrepair on the bridge. WSDOT tweeted pictures showing large holes and exposed rebar on the bridge deck.

WSDOT officials say they don’t have the funds to rebuild the deck on the bridge until 2026.

Maintenance, while not sexy, is necessary to keep our existing infrastructure working well and arguably has a larger impact on reducing congestion than new projects. Think back to the I-5 expansion joint failures in the last few years and the resulting backups and delays - not to mention the potential liability if something failed.

And yes, this affects transit too.

You can blame the lack of funding for maintenance and preservation on several issues but two really stand out.

First, many of our transportation projects are funded by the state borrowing money through the sale of bonds, backed by the taxpayers of Washington. Since the legislature uses its debt capacity to borrow money for new projects, very little operating budget is left for maintenance. It mostly goes to debt payments. In fact, in 2015, only 17% of the annual transportation budget was directed to road maintenance and preservation, and its only getting worse.

Second, we spend disproportionately more on transit than we do on roads. Transit represents less than 4% of the trips taken daily yet we allocate over 60% of our transportation dollars to it. This leaves a big gap on funding for road miles, both expansion and maintenance. Estimates from WSDOT indicate we are falling behind every year and will soon find the repair costs dwarf the cost of building anything new.

Allocating transportation dollars based on trips taken would allow WSDOT to fix the current problems without requiring a tax increase. Additionally, recent proposals to use the existing sales tax revenue collected on new autos to road maintenance would cover a lot of the need.

Additionally, Olympia needs to change its transportation budgeting habits to include the cost of maintenance and not just construction costs when new projects are proposed. You wouldn’t build a new house without expecting to replace the roof eventually, so why is this principle not applied to transportation projects?  By excluding the maintenance cost of the project for its lifetime, we are not seeing the true cost of our infrastructure.

Falling concrete and broken expansion joints are just an indication that neglected investment in our infrastructure is finally catching up to us.

Let’s hope we won’t see another “Galloping Gertie” in our lifetime.