Repaired West Seattle Bridge Reopens to Traffic
After being closed for two and half years for repairs, the Seattle Department of Transportation reopened the West Seattle Bridge to the public earlier this month. Its reopening now allows commuters to drive just four minutes across the structure compared to the 30 to 60 minute travel time with previous detours.
The bridge closed in March 2020 after cracks in the bridge support structure had “rapidly accelerated.” The 1,300-foot-long bridge is “historically” the city’s most used roadway, according to SDOT, with more than 100,000 vehicles and 25,000 transit riders using the roadway every day before the closure.
Bridge Closure Background
Built in 1984 and envisioned to last more than 50 years, the West Seattle Bridge encompasses a six-lane cantilevered concrete structure that measures more than 150 feet high; the main span extends 590 feet long, crossing the Harbor Island and the Duwamish Waterway at the point where it enters Elliott Bay.
Over the years, the bridge has been reported to be “overused,” seeing roughly 107,000 drivers and 25,000 transit riders per day, in addition to adding on a bus-only seventh lane in the last decade. Officials have even gone on to report that the heightened usage could be a major reason for the accelerated cracking along the midspan.
While some were shocked to hear about the issue, the Times reported that SDOT was inspecting the infrastructure every two years—as required by federal law—with engineers only noticing unusual crack patterns in mid-2019.
At long last, the West Seattle Bridge reopens after two-and-half year closure. https://t.co/1XiaintDka— Design and Architecture (@DesignandArchi1) September 19, 2022
Prior to the 2019 inspection, the structure received a 5-merit, based on a scale of 1-9 for both superstructure condition and structural evaluation, which was reported to the National Bridge Inventory. However, the bridge also received a 69 out of 100 for its sufficiency rating, which is a federal metric that combines strength, traffic, environmental impact and navigation.
After the initial discovery, SDOT hired outside experts to evaluate the bridge, who found that the superficial cracking within the girders was actually much more serious, and in an inspection conducted in March, the issues only worsened, leading to the bridge’s indefinite closure.
In April, the Federal Highway Administration was reported to have been monitoring the situation. At the end of the month, SDOT announced that it had selected Wisconsin-based Kraemer North America to complete Phase 1 of bridge stabilization work. Work for the first phase involves the repair of lateral bearings on Pier 18. In Phase 2, Kraemer plans to add temporary external structures—otherwise known as “shoring”—and will determine in the third phase if long-term repairs are feasible.
Temporary Fix and Sensor Technology
By mid-May, the SDOT blog reported that it had been installing a new intelligent monitoring system on the structure, consisting of additional movement sensors, crack monitors and monitoring cameras. The monitoring instrumentation is expected to improve the Department’s understanding and tracking of the health of the bridge with more precision and in real time.
Around the same time that the sensors were installed, former Seattle Mayor Jenny A. Durkan requested a failure analysis of the structure so that emergency preparedness could be improved.
Although the report was initially due by the end of April, on May 15, 2020, Greg Banks, PE SE; Lee Marsh PhD PE; Bob Fernandes, PE SE; Kare Hjorteset, PE SE; and Chad Goodnight, PhD PE, released their findings, pointing out the need for an evacuation of a long “fall zone” from the Pigeon Point greenbelt to Harbor Island, in addition to possible support solutions for the 150-foot-high main span.
While the engineers did not provide odd estimates of a potential collapse or when it could happen, they did go over two possible outcomes involving the event of a total failure or partial collapse, and another possibility involving the progression of cracks, which would then cease once the bridge stabilized itself.
According to the report, “The bridge is currently exhibiting progressive crack growth at two critical locations (Joints 38) of the four quarter points of the twin-box main span between Pier 16 and Pier 17. This is where the first failure mechanism has appeared. While a progressive failure does not mean collapse is imminent, it does illustrate an unintended redistribution of forces within the bridge that could lead to further damage.
“The cracks, without any mitigation, could stop, and the bridge could redistribute load until internal forces stabilize. However, it is not considered likely as the bridge will continue to creep (slowly deform under static load) over time and thus continue to crack.”
In the process of completing some or all mitigation efforts, Durkan and SDOT formed a Technical Advisory Panel and a West Seattle Bridge Community Task Force. The task force includes the City of Seattle, King County, Washington State, Port of Seattle, Northwest Seaport Alliance, the United States Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. If necessary, in the event of a collapse, a unified command will be led by the Seattle Fire Department, SDOT, the Seattle Police Department and USCG.
Work began on a temporary fix for the bridge in early July, which included wrapping sections with carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) and installing post-tensioning tendons. SDOT detailed a multi-step plan for the emergency shoring that began with reopening more than 100 traveler holes that were filled following the original construction.
The leftover holes were to be opened with water jets and aimed to provide a place to fasten the hanging platforms the workers needed to fasten the carbon wrap with epoxy. Carbon was also reportedly to be attached inside the girders; that task was expected to start later that month and last 10 weeks.
The second stage involved stringing additional steel cables across the central span of the bridge—or post-tensioning. To anchor those cables, steel blocks were to be fastened to the concrete underside. That phase was slated to be complete about two weeks after the carbon wrapping.
In the plan announcement, SDOT reiterated that a cost-benefit study by engineering firm WSP was scheduled to be completed in early fall, which would help dictate if the city should repair the bridge or demolish it.
Recent Rehab Progress
In December 2020, SDOT reported that crews were removing work platforms from the West Seattle Bridge, marking the end of emergency measures to stabilize the structure and concluded preparations for upcoming repair efforts.
According to the Department’s blog, crews were able to successfully install and stress the post-tensioning system, use epoxy crack fillings, install carbon fiber-reinforced polymer support wrappings on sections of the structure and Pier 18’s bearing release and replacement.
In January, after work platforms were lowered, crews began offsite disassembling of the platforms. In addition, crews also reported that they would be finishing the last round of coating applications on the post-tensioning brackets.
Upon completing stabilization measures, SDOT announced that it had entered phase two of the project—which involved designing the full rehabilitation of the structure—and would be bringing a contractor on board. By March, the Department was noted to have reached a preliminary design milestone, a step that makes way for the selection process of a contractor.
At the time, SDOT confirmed a more accurate prediction of the costs of the rehab, which included a total of about $72 million. On March 10, when the update was released, SDOT said that it had begun advertising a Request for Qualifications and Project Approach, initiating the process to bring a contractor on board while the project is still in its design phase—this is considered an alternate delivery method.
SDOT also reported that it was petitioning the USDOT to allow the use of the city’s Priority Hire Program, since the project is federally funded. This would put an emphasis on hiring locally and putting money back into the city’s communities. Since this petition, Buttigieg announced that the USDOT would be reinstating the pilot program to allow local hiring provisions in federally-funded projects, which the City of Seattle supports through its Priority Hire and Community Workforce Agreement programs implemented in project contracts.
In late May last year, construction firm Kraemer North America was selected as the contractor for the job, officially putting the rehabilitation project in motion. While the Department reported that 2020 emergency measures have successfully halted the cracks from growing and that the structure is behaving as expected following additional stabilization efforts, it is ready to launch the project still ahead.
Kraemer was selected out of six firms that applied for the project. The list was then narrowed to a shortlist of three teams who were invited to interview and further demonstrate how their experience and qualifications make them best-suited for the project ahead.
The repair contract covers both the rehabilitation of the West Seattle High-Rise Bridge and the Spokane St. Swing Bridge. For the work, SDOT and Kraemer will collaborate to identify ways to stay on schedule and find innovative solutions. In addition, SDOT and Kraemer will also be working closely with WSDOT, the USDOT and the Federal Highway Administration to advance the project and safely reopen the bridge.
At the end of June, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a grant advance notice, notifying the Seattle Department of Transportation that it had been awarded $11.25 million for repairs on the West Seattle High-Rise.
The funding is also slated to be used on the Spokane Street Swing Bridge (“low bridge”), that runs adjacent to the structure. The federal funding arrived through the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) discretionary grants program and is about half of the $21.6 million that the SDOT requested in its grant application back in March.
In September, SDOT reported that the final phase of repairs to the bridge were slated to begin in October. For the final phase, crews will be getting expansion joints together, among other materials, and have plans to construct and install platforms along the bridge for final repair construction.
At the time, the remaining portion of the project had a price tag of nearly $55 million, with federal funding expected to cover 70%.
Earlier this year, in April, SDOT announced that it would begin pouring structural concrete for repairs on the bridge. Work began after the final core drills were completed through the bridge’s pier structure in preparation for future post-tensioning.
According to SDOT, the next steps involved installing forms for blocks and anchors that secure the post-tensioned cables, including the concrete pours, followed by a final round of epoxy injection and carbon-fiber wrapping. Afterwards, the department planned to test and prepare the bridge to reopen.
Concrete was poured inside the bridge following the expansion joint concrete pours to improve post-tensioning that will provide additional strength on the bridge. The repairs reportedly required 245 cubic yards, or about 30 truckloads, of specialized concrete.
Upon completion, the bridge is expected to hold more than 20 million pounds of force and support 46 miles of steel cables.
For its final testing, on Sept. 13, SDOT conducted “live load testing” by driving specialized trucks over the bridge and measuring how the bridge responds. Each truck weighed up to 80,000 pounds, with up to a dozen driving across the bridge, measuring to 960,000 pounds or 275 sedans traveling across the bridge.
SDOT then announced that the data from the testing confirmed that the bridge is "strong, safe and ready to reopen" as planned.
City officials and community representatives gathered on the bridge on Sept. 16 for a press conference to celebrate its opening.
“West Seattle is ready to reopen! On top of so many challenges over the past two and a half years, neighbors have demonstrated resilience and a commitment to their community – weathering difficulties posed by the bridge’s closure including tougher commutes, longer traffic lines, and the struggle of feeling disconnected from the rest of Seattle,” said Mayor Bruce Harrell at the event.
“We can’t be One Seattle without West Seattle, and we are overjoyed to be able to reunite West Seattle with the rest of the city.”
On Sept. 18, the bridge was opened up to commuters. The trip between the peninsula and Interstate 5 reportedly takes four minutes, compared to the previous 30 to 60 minute detour through Duwamish River valley interchanges or neighborhoods.
Heather Marx, Reconnect West Seattle Program Director told reporters that SDOT has not made predictions about traffic this fall, but assures the public that the bridge is stronger than ever. It was anticipated that removing all detour signs and temporary lane markings would take about a week, she added, with crews possibly needing additional signage changes along the bridge route.
According to the release, the repairs to the bridge included nearly 60 miles of steel cables post-tensioned to form the new “backbone” of the structure. Each of these cables were anchored into new specialized concrete blokes woven into the bridge, which can hold more than 20 million pounds of force.
Additionally, the new post-tensioning system works with the network of more than 100,000 square feet of reinforced carbon fiber sheets wrapped inside and outside the bridge walls. Over 240 gallons of epoxy were injected into the cracked concrete.
“These repair systems have prepared the bridge to handle the weight of vehicles and decades of seasonal temperature changes. With these repairs complete, the bridge is much stronger than it was before and will last for decades to come,” wrote SDOT.
“Recent tests demonstrated that the repairs were performing as expected and the bridge was strong enough to support the thousands of vehicles expected to cross it each day. Our engineers and bridge specialists will continue to closely monitor the bridge using cameras, sensors, and frequent in-person inspections.”
For easier access, permanent inspection platforms were installed inside the bridge’s girders to allow inspectors to examine the structure’s concrete. The left shoulder of the westbound lanes was also widened to allow inspectors inside the structure without having to close a traffic lane.
Additional maintenance work, such as replacing old expansion joints and sign structures, were completed during the closure. Crews also reportedly poured a new concrete overlay on the Fauntleroy Expressway to the west of the bridge, as well as repoured worn concrete panels on the bridge’s western approach.
Despite SDOT anticipating that the bridge will fulfill its intended lifespan of 80 years, the bridge will need to be fully replaced around 2060. SDOT has already released plans from engineering firm HNTB and other subcontractors, concluding that the best place for the new bridge is directly on or overlapping the bridge’s existing position.
The 184-page report was issued in December, and NTB completed 30% of a design for a steel arch type that’s “relatively quick to build.”
However, the HNTB report cautions: “It could take 14 to 20 years to deliver a project,” including eight years for planning, funding and design, then six to eight years of construction, according to The Seattle-Times. A cost-benefit analysis conducted by bridge advisors at the WSP engineering firm, led the city to choose the replacement process. The planning process so far has cost nearly $6 million.