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Tacoma bridges need hundreds of millions in repairs. Where will the money come from?

Nearly half of Tacoma’s 38 city-owned bridges are “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete,” raising questions about how City Hall will find the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to replace or reconstruct several of them.

Two of the aging bridges have been closed for five years. The 14 that remain open are safe for motorists, said Josh Diekmann, assistant division manager in the city’s Public Works Department.

“The city inspects all of our bridges on a regular basis, and they’re open to public travel and safe for public travel,” Diekmann said.

The challenge is attracting state and federal grants to replace or renovate bridges, Diekmann said. It took about a decade for city officials to piece together tax dollars from several sources to make repairs to the former Puyallup River Bridge, recently renamed the Fishing Wars Memorial Bridge.

More work is needed to remove weight restrictions on that series of bridges, an alternate route to Interstate 5, one of the primary corridors to the Port of Tacoma and a link between Tacoma and Fife.

Diekmann told the Washington State Transportation Commission last month that one-third of Tacoma’s city-maintained bridges are over 80 years old and are “beginning to age out.”

“We struggle with funding the large amounts of capital that are needed to replace and rehabilitate those bridges,” he told commissioners.

Tacoma has five city-owned bridges that are “structurally deficient,” with sections carrying traffic in “poor or worse condition due to deterioration and/or damage.” Those bridges are not unsafe, but must be inspected more frequently, according to the city.

Bridges are expected to have a life of 75 years. All of the five structurally deficient bridges are older than that, and five of the 11 functionally obsolete ones are.

Two of the structurally deficient bridges include the 108-year-old spans on 11th Street between East Portland Avenue and Thorne Road. The city closed both structures in 2014 because of their deterioration. The city expects a study on what to do with them will recommend the bridges be replaced. Estimated cost: $120 million.

Two other structurally deficient bridges are planned for replacement as part of the Fishing Wars Memorial Bridge project. The crossing reopened in September after being closed in 2018 because of deterioration. The city counts the multiple sections of the Fishing Wars Memorial as separate spans.

The city has submitted a grant to the state to rehabilitate the fifth structurally deficient bridge, 34th Street between Pacific Avenue and A Street. The state is expected to make a decision by the end of the year. The city says the bridge could be rehabilitated for about $10 million.

There are 11 bridges that are categorized as “functionally obsolete.” They are older bridges that were not designed for today’s traffic load, have height restrictions or lanes that are too narrow.

Diekmann said nine of the 11 functionally obsolete brides “are functioning well, are in fair to good condition and are not scheduled for replacement or in need of repair.”

The two planned for replacement are part of the Fishing Wars Memorial Bridge and will need to be replaced to match the width of the other bridges in the corridor. Estimated cost: $140 million.

Tacoma Council member Ryan Mello said more revenue is needed from the state if the Legislature tackles a new transportation package, which likely would increase the state gas tax, in the next few years.

“A big portion of that new money needs to come directly to cities to take care of their infrastructure. The state has the primary responsibility of the infrastructure — state highways — but what we try to remind the state is that all of that pours into city infrastructure. We’re then responsible for that and we don’t have revenue streams to keep up with these significant costs,” Mello said.

Earlier this year, a study commissioned by the House and Senate transportation committees found the gap between the needs of cities for transportation projects and the public dollars they receive from multiple sources is about $1 billion a year.

Tacoma’s aging bridges

Structurally deficient: This means significant load-carrying parts of the bridge are found to be in poor or worse condition due to deterioration.

Fishing Wars Memorial Bridge B between East Portland Avenue and East 20th Street, 94 years old, weigh restriction of 40,000 pounds

Fishing Wars Memorial Bridge D between East Portland Avenue and East 20th Street, 94 years old, weight restriction of 40,000 pounds

East 11th Street Truss bridge between East Portland Avenue and Thorne Road, 108 years old, closed in 2014

11th Street Viaduct bridge between East Portland Avenue and Thorne Road, 89 years old, closed in 2014

East 34th Street bridge between Pacific Avenue and A Street, 82 years old, certain three-axle vehicles restricted to 62,000 pounds, including one vehicle in the Tacoma Fire Department fleet.

Functionally obsolete: This means that the bridge has one or more characteristics that do not meet current design standards, such as narrow lanes, lack of shoulders, or a lower load-carrying capacity, the city says.

East 26th Street bridge between A Street and East C Street, 88 years old, rebuilt in 2003, weight restriction of 48,000 pounds

Tacoma Spur Stadium Way southbound ramp bridge between Stadium Way and southbound I-705, 45 years old

Tacoma Spur Stadium Way northbound ramp between northbound I-705 and Stadium Way, 45 years old

Tacoma Spur Schuster Parkway southbound ramp bridge between Schuster Parkway and southbound I-705, 45 years old

Tacoma Spur Schuster Parkway northbound ramp bridge between northbound I-705 and Schuster Parkway, 45 years old

Murray Morgan Bridge between A Street and East F Street, 108 years old, rebuilt in 2013.

Fishing Wars Memorial Bridge A between East Portland Avenue and East 20th Street, weight restriction of 40,000 pounds

Fishing Wars Memorial Bridge C between East Portland Avenue and East 20th Street, 94 years old, weight restriction of 40,000 pounds

Fishing Wars Memorial Bridge E between East Portland Avenue and East 20th Street, 94 years old, weight restriction of 40,000 pounds

Harold G. Moss Bridge between East B Street and East D Street, 72 years old, rebuilt in 2008

South 48th Street bridge between Tacoma Mall Boulevard and South Wilkeson Street, 49 years old

James Drew covers the state Legislature and state government for McClatchy’s Washington papers: The News Tribune, The Olympian, The Bellingham Herald and The Tri-City Herald.
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