Sorry about that, South Park!

Local governments do it all the time: start popular new projects while ignoring upkeep. This time, Seattle and King County took it to the point of shutting down South Park's vital bridge, shafting a neighborhood that lacks political clout.
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The South Park Bridge is scheduled to close

Local governments do it all the time: start popular new projects while ignoring upkeep. This time, Seattle and King County took it to the point of shutting down South Park's vital bridge, shafting a neighborhood that lacks political clout.

We have a serious problem locally, regionally, and nationally. It is a story of total failure on the part of our leaders to put in place systems requiring them to fully fund maintenance and replacement costs of our infrastructure.

We often hear about budget shortfalls and escalating costs as the reasons for that failure, but we never get the chance to have a discussion about long-term capital planning, setting priorities of government, and the true price we pay for new projects versus taking care of what we have.

Admittedly, we have a number of large regional transportation infrastructure repair and replacement needs that are coming due at the same time — the SR 99 corridor and Viaduct, the 520 bridge, and improvements to I-405. In Seattle and King County, we have streets that are failing and the Howard Hanson Dam, which requires a huge investment to guard against flooding in the Kent Valley.

But there is no clearer example of a failure of leadership and planning than the case of King County's South Park Bridge. The county has known for decades that the bridge was failing and would need to be either replaced or shut down. Unfortunately, the county will close the bridge on June 30, leaving the local businesses in South Park facing economic isolation. This is wrong and was absolutely preventable.

It's tempting to blame this failure on the voters and those who actively opposed the Regional Transportation Improvement District ballot measure in 2007. Developer Kemper Freeman and the Sierra Club, led by Mike McGinn in his pre-mayoral days, were leaders in the fight against the RTID measure, albeit for different reasons. But that blame game misses the point that the county and city should have joined forces a decade ago to address this issue.

While the bridge belongs to the county, it lands in Seattle on both sides — the exception being the 'ꀜsliver by the river'ꀝ of unincorporated King County. Discussions of annexations of that small piece of South Park often hinged on responsibility for rebuilding the bridge. The county saw annexation as an opportunity to get funding from Seattle, and the city balked at annexation until the bridge was repaired, not wanting any liability.

Caught between the county and the city is a wonderfully diverse and entrepreneurial neighborhood without the clout to push their city and county governments toward a solution. It is unimaginable that this disaster would be allowed to happen in South Lake Union or Magnolia, or any number of other neighborhoods around the city. But it happened to South Park — a slow rolling disaster.

In addition to these harsh realities, there is another even more troubling aspect of this situation — leading the community down the garden path of expectation that their government would serve their basic transportation needs. The county spent $30 million on a community engagement and design process for a new bridge, sending the signal that a new bridge was on the way. Residents and business owners made their own long-term plans based on that understanding. And now they know that the bridge will be closed for at least two years.

The county plans on applying for federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER 2) funding in October 2010, and possibly creating an Unincorporated Area Transportation Benefit District. The shortfall in funding is roughly $130 million. The Puget Sound Regional Council also has the bridge at the highest priority level in their Transportation 2040 Plan just as it was under RTID. But all of these funding sources take time. The bridge will still close June 30.

Besides the obvious social justice issues and the failure to plan for maintenance and repair of our infrastructure, there is another bigger question that reaches into all levels of government and all of the things that government does. We see it with Seattle's parks. We continually vote to build new facilities without any idea how to absorb the management and maintenance costs.

We have a city government that continues to move in the direction of moving popular programs and facilities off the general fund and onto the ballot, so we can fund extras that most people would never vote for. And our county government is considering ballot measures to fund basic services, while refusing to address out-of-control labor costs.

Is it any wonder that a little bridge in South Park loses out in this scenario? Maybe we should put it on the ballot.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.