leo berk, bridge unit artist-in-residence, blogs – part 4

sberk4ervice to south park

You’re late for your meeting, but if you hurry you might just make it on time. But just as you approach a bridge, the red lights start flashing, the guards lower and the deck raises–foiled! With seven bridges that open for water vessels in the Seattle area, most of us have experienced this painful moment. Sometimes, it can feel as if a personal injustice has been committed, though once the bridge opens again, all is forgiven and looking back, the view might have even been nice.

For Seattle’s South Park neighborhood, that painful moment will feel a little more personal and may take a lot longer to forgive when King County is forced to close one of their main connections to Seattle: the South Park Bridge. The historic 79-year old bridge is on its last legs. It recently scored a 4 out of 100 in a structural safety evaluation using Federal Highway Administration criteria. With driver safety a high priority for King County Roads, the County has been attempting to secure funding for its replacement for over a decade.



Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the internal workings of the South Park Bridge during a scheduled bridge opening. While snapping photos constantly during the brief window of viewing opportunity, I was truly inspired to see all of the original electronics, motors, and gears that lift the structure into the air. The experience made me wonder how a bridge like this was funded over 80 years ago. Were taxpayers disgruntled over the cost of the ornate light fixtures and railing or did they expect a level of visual sophistication from a civil project like this? Was labor cheap enough back then to make the high level of craftsmanship displayed on this bridge affordable? To build a structure as beautiful as this, one that opens and closes day after day for almost 80 years, seemed at that moment like an achievement of the ages.


The County recently applied for a $99 million grant for federal stimulus money to fund the bridge’s replacement,  in conjunction with other local dollars. There were a lot of fingers crossed, particularly in South Park. County officials had a number of reasons to think they stood a good chance of receiving that grant —volume (the bridge handles 20,000 cars per day and over 10 million tons of freight cross its span annually), service area (South Park provides a gateway to an underserved, low income minority neighborhood), and safety (the replacement bridge would replace a failing structure).

A few weeks ago, however, the federal grant decisions were announced and, despite a concerted effort by County staff, the South Park Bridge was not on the list of grantees. There’s still a glimmer of hope on the horizon for this bridge: another round of transportation stimulus grants will be happening later this year. (Sometimes the injection of stimulus money feels like an intravenous drip.)


Two things are certain either way:
1.    Sadly, the historic South Park Bridge will be dismantled – it’s seismically vulnerable and cannot be retrofitted.  And while the replacement bridge planned will feature artwork that incorporates historic elements of the bridge, out of   179-County owned bridges,  few are as handsome as this one as it stands now.

2.    The next time I’m stuck at a bridge, instead of feeling injustice I am simply going to be grateful for the service our county works to provide us everyday, that it will open again, and I can be on my way.


Leo Berk, King County’s Bridge Unit Artist-in-Residence, is working collaboratively with Roads Services Division staff to understand the function and design possibilities of short span bridges. Leo is tasked with designing a kit of parts for incorporation into the County’s small scale bridges.  His process began with research into the County’s process of bridge building and maintenance, in scales big and small.

© South Park Bridge by Leo Berk