Monday, June 20, 2011

When the Ship Hit the Span

In the 1970s, Seattle did two things quite well.  Citizen opposition to freeways and official corruption.  Voter approved freeways were being abandoned everywhere and the only city project remaining on the table, the West Seattle Freeway, was in the sights of another group of citizens out gathering signatures. 

While they gathered, the City Engineer, the head of the Highway Committee of the House and a National Democratic Comitteeman were taking bribes and handing the design of the proposed bridge to a Maryland engineering company, who had excellent legal help, the Speaker of the Washington State House of Representatives.   

Complicating everything was the fact that, for funding purposes, the West Seattle Project was a city street, at the bottom of the financial food chain for roads and bridges.  It did not qualify for federal funds and its qualification for state funds was marginal.  Unlike our state funding for the today's bored tunnel, the city was on the hook for everything.

The Forward Thrust Committee knew in 1968 exactly what it had to do to get votes in West Seattle -- add a little seed money for a new, high level bridge, something that would vault vehicles over the increasingly frequent and increasingly longer openings of the bridge that provides for marine commerce up river. 

Forward Thrust, Seattle's great infrastructure package that cleaned up Lake Washington and provided several transportation options, included $16.7 million for the bridge and the city added another $17.5 million in Urban Arterial Funds, state gas tax monies shared under a formula for the busiest city streets.  Another $2.7 came from an account most frequently used for repair and maintenance. 

A typical process-heavy Seattle selection process delivered three companies ready to design a bridge for a fee of $1.5 million.  City engineer Bob Gulino chose none of them.  Rather, he cast his lot with the company represented by Speaker Sawyer, Knoerle Bender and Stone from Baltimore.  Not surprisingly, when the design went to bid, in June of 1974, the proposals came back double what Seattle had in its pocket.  And, by the way, the design cost turned out to be $4.5 million.

The opponents had been successful getting their initiative on the ballot and the bridge would be there with a big black eye and a complicated, multi-phase approach that only seasoned planners could understand.  But the proponents of the bridge developed a coalition of good government, economic development, port and affected neighborhoods -- very much like the coalition for the tunnel today, and passed the measure with 68% yes votes. 

Seattle Times

While a big victory, it really had no meaning.  The complications of the project, the scandal, gave it a big stink that no one wanted to be around.  In '75, the state withdrew its urban arterial funds that had been waiting beyond the patience of state legislators and a Municipal League study articulated the dreadful details of the smell. 

Shut out by the state and not enough money at home, and despite its support at the polls, the bridge was barely breathing.  Norbert Tiemann, the federal highway administrator, seemed to put the final nail in the high level coffin.  "I would doubt they would have any success, at least with the Federal Highway Administration," he told the Seattle Times. 

Federal indictments would follow in 1976 and convictions in 1977.  The chair of the Washington State House Highway Committee, Bob Perry, would become a fugitive in Mexico and Costa Rica. 

But part of Mr.  Tiemann's interview that day, nearly overlooked, offered an interesting alternative. 

"Short of a tug knocking it down, (which could trigger federal special bridge replacement funds)" Tiemann said, "there is nothing else.  And you certainly wouldn't want to go that route."

That's exactly the route we took, Mr.  Administrator. Though, to be accurate, we knocked it up!

At 2:38 on June 11, 1978, the Chavez, piloted by 80 year old Rolf Neslund, struck the bridge.  The north span was stuck open and Wes Uhlman got a very excited telephone call from the bridge tender.  "Call the godamned Mayor, said former Mayor Uhlman."

Finally finding a home number for the brand new Mayor Royer, the bridge tender went through his by now well-rehearsed report.

"Seize the vessel" is all the Mayor could think to say.

The Office of Special Bridge Replacement was three or four rooms in Washington, DC with a guy whose desk was full of Polaroids. 

"Look at these," he says, taking out a stack from Virginia where a destroyer collided with a bridge on the way out of port. 

"Or these," he says, showing off the catastrophe in New Orleans, both of which happened in the same month as our collision in Seattle.

He takes the set I give him and tosses them on his desk.

"Gee, that's a hell of a mess." 

Special Bridge Replacement has exactly $100,000,000 in it and it wouldn't fix five percent of his desk drawer gallery.  There are moments when you realize just how big this country is.  This was mine.

Norm Dicks and Senator Magnuson
However,we had some resources in 1978.  Senator Magnuson was Chairman of Appropriations and thought to be in his last term.  Former Representative Brock Adams was Secretary of Transportation, who lusted after Magnuson's seat in the Senate.

Magnuson was famous for his little amendments and one was quickly put together, for sixty million dollars.  Ultimately, the federal pot would grow to $110 million.  Problem was that the transportation budget had long ago left the Senate and was now being heard on the House side.  To insert an amendment required help from the Committee on Public Works and Transportation Chair, James J.  Howard, Democrat from New Jersey. 

He heard out the briefing, presented by a delegation that included a few locals along with Magnuson's personal and committee staff.  It soon became apparent something had gone terribly wrong between the Congressman and Secretary Adams.

"Will this, in any way, help Brock Adams?" he asked, as casually as if offering fizzy water or flat.

At that moment, most people in the room and across Washington State thought that Adams was going to run for Maggie's Senate seat after Magnuson's graceful retirement. Norm Dicks, the Senator's legislative assistant, apparently was the only one breathing:

"No," he said.  And nothing more.

The money came with plenty of advice from political people who had come to equate the high level bridge with failure and unacceptable cost.  "Don't go chasing after that high level bridge," Adams said after one meeting, and all the heads nodded. 

The result was an environmental impact statement featuring several different mid-level alignments that would be wider and high enough so the bridge would open less frequently. 

When these options went to the City Council, Councilmember Jeanette Williams went to work.  She had no use for the wisdom of the elders in DC.  She wanted the big bridge.  Over time, and with a fair amount of risk, she began fashioning deals that brought in the additional money it would take -- ten million from the Port of Seattle, ten from King County, matched by another ten from the City of Seattle. 

City of Seattle
The risk was inflation, then roaring through every capital project in the country.  There was a real cost to delay.  For example, when the Chavez struck the bridge, June of 1978, the Prime Rate, which most construction loans followed, was 8%.  A year later, when Jeanette was trying to buy time for the high bridge, it was 12.5%.  In 1981, when construction began, it was 21%.  Today's Prime Rate is 3.25%.

A few things stand out about that time.  Clearly, events moved faster.  Just ten months after the bridge tender's early morning calls, the City Council approved a high level alignment that was funded by a seat-of-the-pants coalition of federal, state and local governments -- about $190 million in all.  All the additional properties were in city hands by mid-1980 and construction began in mid-1981, well-after the felons who broke the public trust had served their time and left prison.

The new bridge focused development in West Seattle in good ways and bad.  Traffic volumes have increased substantially to accommodate the multi-family development that followed the better transportation solution.  Additionally, new growth occured in Delridge and other previously overlooked communities whose housing prices proved attractive.  However, all this density supports amenities that now make West Seattle as cool a neighborhood as the city has.  

City of Seattle
An orphan in the bridge story is the new low level bridge that crosses the Duwamish just north of the high bridge.  It was part of the package associated with the higher bridge and was put there for freight mobility.  The extensive truck/rail/ship interface that Terminal 5 has become is a testament for how to accommodate intensive port activities in the urban setting.

No West Seattle Bridge story exists without the grisly postscript of Rolf Neslund's demise.  Neslund was probably too old to be piloting large ships but worse, he was a drunk.  So was his wife, Ruth. 

Forced out of the Puget Sound Pilots Association he transfered his pension benefits from his accounts to Ruth's accounts because he feared a lawsuit for damage caused to the bridge.  Later, he found out that she had spent all his pension money and they had one of their frequent drunken arguments.  She shot him, twice.  Then, she and her brother chopped him up, burned his body in a burn barrel and put the ashes in a compost pile behind their Lopez Island home.

HistoryLink's fabulous account of Ruth Neslund's Trial

The Obituary of Robert Perry


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