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Magnolia Bridge Replacement Project

From Queen Anne-Magnolia News:

Bridgework: Deferred maintenance, aging spans leave legacy of pricey problems

By Russ Zabel

Driving across the Magnolia Bridge reveals a vital transportation link as modern-looking as a brand-new span. However, taking a peak underneath the bridge is a lot like looking under the hood of an aging Chevy with a new paint job.

That's where the wear-and-tear really shows in both cases.

It's a fact the Seattle Department of Transportation pointed out last week on a media tour that involved using a bucket on a special crane to lower first a Q-13 TV crew, then a Seattle Post-Intelligencer writer and finally this reporter to a point directly underneath the aging bridge.

The ride at the western edge of the bridge and hundreds of feet above Smith Cove was a little nerve-wracking. But equally sobering was a look at what SDOT bridge engineer supervisor John Buswell said were a few of the 250 "defects" on the structure.

Most of them are minor, he said. But they include concrete with cracks in it, concrete that is flaking off in sheets, and concrete that has crumbled away to reveal naked rebar, the steel rods used to reinforce concrete.

The problem with rebar, Buswell explained, is that it expands an amazing amount when it rusts, eventually breaking away entire chunks of concrete. The rebar rusts because water seeps in through cracks.

Everybody from SDOT stressed that the Mangolia Bridge is perfectly safe at the moment, and it is monitored electronically around the clock for dangerous changes, said SDOT Director Grace Crunican.

SDOT rates the condition of the Magnolia bridge as poor, the lowest rating of four, and it's not alone in that category. Of the 105 bridges in Seattle, 39 are rated as poor, she said.

Part of the Magnolia Bridge's poor condition is the result of the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, and part is due to the occurence of landslides several years ago, Crunican said.

More significantly, the bridge is getting old. The expected life span for most bridges is 50 to 70 years, she said, noting that the Magnolia Bridge is 75. It could be worse. Nine of the city's bridges are more than 90 years old, Crunican added.

At 87, the approaches to the Fremont Bridge are also showing their age. But unlike the Magnolia Bridge, work repairing them is scheduled to begin soon, SDOT project manager Kirk Jones said the agency will decide next fall on the preferred alternative for replacing the Magnolia Bridge, which had 14,500 average daily trips in 2000.

In the meantime, it and the rest of the bridges in Seattle have to be maintained, and that's a problem, Crunican said. Bringing all of the bridges up to modern standards would cost approximately $200 million, she added.

Running opposite to that need is the condition of the state budget. Caused in part by Tim Eyman's tax-busting initiatives, maintenance funds for bridges have declined 67 percent, Crunican said.

The shortfall has led to a practice of tackling major bridge repairs once every three or four years, instead of once a year as it should be, she said.

The future doesn't look much brighter, and Seattle isn't the only city to feel the sting. The maintenance-funding shortfall for the entire state is expected to reach $1.2 billion by 2007, according to an SDOT press release.

Crunican hopes the figure changes, and she said Mayor Greg Nickels and leaders from other cities in the state will lobby the legislature about the importance of bridge maintenance.

She also said Nickels' lobbying efforts are part of his pledge "to get Seattle moving again."

Staff reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at 461-1309 or

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