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Thursday, July 6, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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South Park Bridge on its last legs

Seattle Times staff reporter

Part of the South Park Bridge is slowly moving up the Duwamish River. The other part is moving downstream.

The massive concrete piers supporting the bridge rest on wooden pilings too short to reach solid soil. Even the concrete is disintegrating.

One of these days, the 75-year-old drawbridge that carries 20,000 trucks and cars across this industrial waterway will simply stop working.

This bridge, engineering studies show, is in worse shape than the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

"Every time it goes up, I listen: Is it going to make it?" says Tim McNeil, a South Park resident who became convinced of the need for a new bridge after joining a citizens' advisory group.

But the bridge's owner, King County, doesn't have the $90 million-plus necessary to replace it. Now the bridge could prove a deal breaker in talks over Seattle and Burien annexing 32,000 county residents into their cities.

Unless the bridge is included in a regional transportation package and voters approve the plan next year, officials say they may have to shut down the bridge and demolish it.

"We don't know what they mixed in there, but the concrete itself is chemically self-destructing," said county Roads Director Linda Dougherty. "So it's not a bridge that you could cheaply even Band-Aid together to get another 15 years out of. ...

"If we have no money in hand, we have pretty much resigned ourselves to the fact that by the end of this decade we'll have to make a decision about closing it."

The bridge isn't in danger of collapse, so lives aren't at stake, Dougherty says.

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But sometimes, when the metal draw spans expand in hot weather, workers must cut back the spans' interlocking "teeth" so they can be closed again. At some point they won't be able to keep the bridge working. If an earthquake hits when the bridge is open, Dougherty said, one of the spans could crash into the water.

If there's any bridge in the state that needs replacing, it's this one. On a Federal Highway Administration scale ranking the condition of bridges, and taking into account their importance, South Park scored a miserable 4 out of 100, worse than the Alaskan Way Viaduct's 9. (The Viaduct, which carries 110,000 vehicles a day, has been settling into soft soil since the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake, and state and Seattle city officials are discussing how to replace it. )

Closing and tearing down the South Park Bridge would cost up to $9 million, hurt South Park's small retail district and worsen traffic congestion on the First Avenue South Bridge and other Duwamish River spans, merchants and county officials say.

"We would just be dead in the water," said Otto Porco, manager of Napoli Pizzeria, a restaurant that draws much of its trade from workers at Boeing and other plants across the river on East Marginal Way.

"Oh, it's going to kill us," said Chong Lee, who took over the County Line Bar and Grill two months ago. Her business, which lies in the path of the replacement bridge county officials hope to build, is likely to be disrupted no matter what happens.

Uncertainty about the bridge's future has clouded discussions among officials in Seattle, Burien and King County over whether the cities will try to annex North Highline, south and west of South Park. The plan would require approval by the residents of the area, which includes White Center and Boulevard Park.

But the Seattle City Council says it won't approve any annexation unless King County guarantees it will replace the bridge. County officials say they would like to provide that assurance, but aren't sure how without a funding source.

"The South Park Bridge issue is kind of the elephant in the room," says King County's intergovernmental relations director, Ryan Bayne.

The north end of the bridge is in Tukwila, the south end in the county's two-block wide "sliver by the river." Most of South Park is in Seattle. (The county in 2003 assumed sole responsibility for replacing the bridge when Tukwila agreed to pay the county $3 million and take ownership of a county swimming pool.)

Seattle City Council members are worried that if they annex a portion of North Highline, the state Boundary Review Board for King County might add the sliver to the annexation, making the city responsible for the bridge.

"Let's start with resolving the bridge. Let's not start with annexations," said Seattle City Councilman Richard McIver.

The city and the county want the South Park Bridge included in a multibillion-dollar transportation-funding plan the Regional Transportation Investment District and Sound Transit are expected to put before voters next year.

Dave Gering, executive director of the Manufacturing Industrial Council, calls the spectacle of a major bridge falling apart before our eyes "breathtaking. ... This is the poster child for what's wrong with this region."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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