Historic Seattle rail bridge will remain, with repairs

Historic Seattle rail bridge will remain, with repairs
The iconic Salmon Bay Rail Bridge near the Ballard Locks in Seattle will be repaired rather than replaced as originally planned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe. Photo: Wikipedia, courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives

Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) has announced it will repair the Salmon Bay Rail Bridge near the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, which serves as a critical link in the region’s freight infrastructure.

For the city, it means a historic and iconic local landmark, as well as the last bridge to span Lake Washington before Puget Sound, will remain intact indefinitely.

Although the bridge does service passenger trains, the vast majority of the 30-40 daily trains that cross are freight consisting of common day goods including medical supplies and food. Although BNSF has invested millions into the bridge, the counterweight system used to raise and lower it for marine traffic is beginning to fail.

BNSF Spokesperson Courtney Wallace wrote in an email to Lens that were the bridge to become inoperable, “you would see significant delays with this critical piece of infrastructure out of commission, which have a huge impact on Washington’s trade-based economy. Manufacturers, distributors and retailers depend on daily shipments that cross the bridge to supply their operations, including shipments to and from the ports of Seattle and Tacoma.”

BNSF two years ago announced it intended to replace the bridge entirely, but after discussions with marine industry members and other stakeholders the company decided to repair the structure instead. According to Wallace, there are no other nearby locations for a replacement bridge – a move that would also require rerouting the rail line.

Not only will repairs reduce original project costs by an estimated $50 million, but also, Wallace  that “it became evident that there were too many complexities that would impact users of the Ship Canal. For example, navigation during construction was a concern for both commercial mariners and recreational boaters. We understand the significance of this bridge to the community, but it is important to remember that it still has a job to do. For BNSF, we need to ensure the bridge is in good working order.”

While this latest decision by BNSF may keep a Seattle landmark intact for the time being, Wallace noted that although the bridge is in good condition “it is important to remember that no bridge is permanent and all have to be replaced; however, moveable components have a shorter life span due to the fact that they move. We conduct annual inspections and carry out long-term replacements as warranted for all our bridges.”

At this point it is unknown when the project will be completed, as Wallace wrote that the project is currently in the early design phase.

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