SEATTLE — It’s a day more than two years in the making. The day residents of West Seattle have been waiting for. The West Seattle Bridge will reopen to traffic on Sept. 18, 2022.
The West Seattle Bridge closed in March 2020 “in the interest of public safety” after cracks in the bridge support structure – which were originally discovered in 2013 – had "rapidly accelerated.” The approximately 1,300-foot-long concrete structure has been a major route for travelers since it was built in 1984.
According to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), the bridge is historically the city’s most used street, with more than 100,000 vehicles and 25,000 transit riders using the roadway every day before the closure.
From the initial closure to construction delays and major milestones, here’s a look back at how we got here and what it took to repair the structure:
The SDOT closed the West Seattle Bridge on March 23 after cracks were found during a routine inspection. The closure happened on the same day Gov. Jay Inslee issued a statewide stay-at-home order to slow the spread of COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic.
The city said the bridge would remain closed until it could “be stabilized for use.”
While then-SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe said the issue would "likely outlast" the coronavirus pandemic, officials stressed the bridge was not in imminent danger of collapse while traffic was kept off the span.
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The SDOT announced on April 15 that the damage to the bridge was worse than expected and would need to be closed for repairs until at least 2022.
Officials at the time said repairs might not be possible, but if they were, it would likely only add another decade to the bridge’s life.
The SDOT said the city had begun stabilizing the bridge to prevent further cracking and exploring long-term solutions.
Then-Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said she had spoken with Washington's congressional delegation about securing federal dollars to help pay for bridge replacement, possibly as part of an economic stimulus package in response to the pandemic.
The city announced a new intelligent monitoring system to track cracks in the bridge in real-time would be fully operational in mid-May.
The system was designed to keep the SDOT informed on how the bridge reacts to environmental changes, bridge stabilization measures, give better indications of bridge distress that could warn of “impending failure” and help guide decisions about the feasibility of repairing or replacing the bridge.
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The city put out a call at the beginning of June for engineering firms interested in designing a replacement for the West Seattle Bridge if it could not be repaired. The city said the contract for the replacement would be between $50 million and $150 million and would be a multi-year phased contract for about 10 years. The contract could be for either a partial or full bridge replacement. However, the city said was also simultaneously pursuing repairing the bridge in addition to replacing it.
Overnight access to the West Seattle Low Bridge was expanded to include all vehicles on June 25. Traffic on the West Seattle Low Bridge was previously restricted to emergency vehicles, freight and transit.
Workers began stabilization work on the bridge at the end of June. The SDOT said stabilizing the bridge was a “necessary next step" toward either repairing it or preparing it for demolition.
Durkan declared the closure of the West Seattle Bridge a civil emergency. The then-mayor signed the proclamation July 16, along with an emergency order requesting state and federal funding assistance.
At the end of July, workers finished installing four platforms on the bridge, allowing crew members to begin working on stabilization measures intended to slow cracking. Those measures included carbon wrapping weakened areas of the bridge, which SDOT compared to “putting a cast on an injured arm or leg,” adding post-tensioning inside the girders to support the bridge and prevent cracking and injecting epoxy into cracks to protect post-tensioning steel inside the bridge from corrosion, according to the SDOT.
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Durkan announced on Nov. 19 that the city would repair the bridge instead of building a new one. The decision to repair the bridge came after "months" of examining the bridge's structural integrity, doing a cost-benefit analysis and speaking with impacted communities.
Economic recovery was one of the key reasons to repair the bridge instead of replacing it completely. Replacing the bridge was estimated to take until 2026.
Crews finished the first step of stabilizing the West Seattle Bridge. Stabilization work included installing nearly 10 miles of steel cable inside hollow areas of the bridge to reinforce its tension system.
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Rep. Pramila Jayapal helps secure $11.2 million in federal grant money for repairs on the West Seattle Bridge.
The $11.2 million came from the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America Grant, awarded to the state by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Of the project's $66.94 million repair costs more than half – $37.65 million – came from federal funding sources.
The final phase of repairing the West Seattle Bridge begins. At the time, officials said the substantial completion date for the repairs was projected to be June 30, adding that there would be no more than two weeks of testing following the date, making the projected full reopening date July 14.
The final phase included the bulk of construction for repairs, including installing more carbon fiber wrapping around the bridge and post-tensioning cables to strengthen its structure, as well as fortifying work on the side spans on the east and west sections of the structure.
Officials said the repairs are expected to last until around 2060, at which point the bridge will likely need to be completely replaced.
The SDOT had already released its plans for this anticipated replacement, which it hopes to have finished in time for the eventual demise of the current bridge.
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Concrete workers in the Puget Sound region went on strike, putting major projects on hold across the area. The strike delayed the reopening of the bridge.
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Concrete workers returned to work on April 11, ending the months-long strike. Days later, on April 14, workers covered the cracks on the bridge with an adhesive that was as strong as concrete to keep water from damaging the steel inside.
Workers started the second post-tensioning phase in April by pouring structural concrete for the system’s foundation.
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The last structural concrete elements were poured before crews built positioning pipes to house and protect the post-tensioning cables inside the bridge.
The SDOT called the process a "crucial project milestone" that affected the project's reopening schedule.
The concrete work was supposed to begin in February but was delayed by a concrete strike.
The city announced the West Seattle Bridge was expected to reopen the week of Sept. 12, several months behind the previously projected reopening date.
Workers used specialized equipment in June to push nearly 250,000 feet – which is about 47 miles – of steel cable through the newly installed pipes that run along the length of the bridge.
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The SDOT announced a “major construction milestone” as crews finished tightening steel post-tensioning cables inside the bridge. The city said post-tensioning is one of the three “key repair procedures” to bring the bridge back into service.
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The SDOT announced an updated reopening date of Sept. 18. All traffic restrictions on the Spokane Street Swing Bridge, also known as the West Seattle low bridge, will also end on Sept. 18.
Construction crews removed the final two hanging work platforms installed in January 2022. The platforms gave workers access to the underside of the bridge to inject epoxy into the exterior cracks and apply more carbon-fiber wrapping to the bridge.
The SDOT said workers injected more than 240 gallons of epoxy into cracks in the bridge in 2022. Over 100,000 square feet of carbon-fiber wrapping was also added to the bridge during the final phase of repairs.
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On Sept. 13, SDOT crews completed maintenance work and conducted tests to ensure the structure's stability.
The tests included “live loading testing” where specialized trucks drove over the bridge and measured how the bridge responds. Each truck weighed up to 80,000 pounds and about a dozen were driven across the bridge, the SDOT said. That's 960,000 pounds, or 275 sedans, traveling across the bridge.
The West Seattle Bridge officially passed its final safety test on Sept. 15. The SDOT said the data from the strength test earlier in the week confirmed the bridge was strong, safe and ready to reopen.
SDOT said it is confident that the repaired bridge will stand strong for decades to come, fulfilling its original intended lifespan.