Bridge Support: A chorus of praise for saving Murray Morgan Bridge

Tacoma City Council's decision Tuesday to accept ownership of the Murray Morgan Bridge from the Washington State Department of Transportation...

Tacoma City Council’s decision Tuesday to accept ownership of the Murray Morgan Bridge from the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) was an important milestone for the nearly century-old historic landmark.

That doesn’t mean the bridge has been saved. To be sure, there is still plenty of heavy lifting ahead: wire lift cables need to be replaced, the center truss span needs attention (as well as both approaches to the bridge), and seismic enhancements are also on the to-do list.

But an entity — the City of Tacoma — that truly cares about the bridge now owns it.

WSDOT took responsibility of the bridge in the mid-1990s while it constructed State Route 509 from Interstate 705 to Milwaukee Avenue. According to an earlier agreement, the State agreed to return the bridge back to the City once SR 509 was completed. However, the bridge has suffered from years of deferred maintenance and neglect at the hands of WSDOT. This came despite agreements between the City and the State that WSDOT would either rehabilitate or replace the bridge before returning it to Tacoma.

The original agreement, dated March 23, 1995, indicates the “State shall retain ownership and maintenance of the existing Thea Foss Waterway [Murray Morgan] Bridge until the state completes the rehabilitation of the bridge. Upon the completion of the rehabilitation, the City shall accept said [bridge].”

Similarly, a supplement to the agreement, dated Jan. 26, 1998, states, “The State shall retain ownership and maintenance of the existing Murray Morgan Bridge . . . until the State replaces the existing bridge with a new bridge. The new bridge will be either a replica of the existing bridge or of a alternative design developed through a public process including consultation with the Tacoma City Council. Upon completion of the replacement of the existing bridge, the City shall accept said [bridge].”

WSDOT’s failure to maintain the bridge led to some sad decisions and designations: the bridge, which was built in 1913, was closed to vehicular traffic Oct. 23, 2007, due to safety concerns that arose after weeks of inspections by WSDOT engineers; in 2008, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation included the bridge on its annual list of Most Endangered Properties; the bridge was also included on Historic Tacoma’s ‘watch list’ of endangered properties.

According to the new agreement approved this week, WSDOT will provide the City approximately $10.8 million in state funds, and $26.2 million in Federal Highway Administration funds toward the bridge’s rehabilitation; and WSDOT will support the City in its effort to secure additional federal funds to rehabilitate the bridge.

During Tuesday’s City Council meeting, many people testified in support of the new agreement and saving the bridge. Here is a collection of their public comments.

I. MICHAEL SULLIVAN, TACOMA HISTORIAN

It was exactly 100 years ago that the railroad controlled all our waterfront. There was no public access to the water. There was a private bridge at 11th Street and our mayor was approached by the railroad, who came to us and said, ‘You know, we’re finally going to do the city a great favor. We’re going to build a great train station we’ve been promising to build for years. And we’re going to build it right at 19th and Pacific. All we need from you is the vacation of 19th so we can get that built.’ What mayor wouldn’t jump at the opportunity of getting that built?

Well, as it turns out, Angelo Fawcett, who was the mayor at the time, thought better than to just take the deal. His exchange for that vacation of 19th was 350 feet on the central Foss Waterway. The last thing [the railroad] wanted was an interruption in their continuous land ownership along the waterfront. But they needed to build Union Station. They gave up 350 feet.

Immediately, the city began to build a bridge over the waterfront to break that control over the waterfront, open up the port, create the modern day Port of Tacoma, and give us public access to our waterfront all the way through. The symbol of that was the bridge they built from 1911 to 1912, 1913.

The railroad made the deal only because they knew they could get to the ballot right away using the new tool of ‘recall’ and get rid of [Mayor Fawcett]. So what Fawcett did was he had the City Council in 1909, in making the deal, put language in that said whenever the city owns waterfront — and this 350 feet was the only stretch the city owned — it can never be leased and it can never be sold without a vote of the people. A poison pill to hold onto it because he knew the railroad was going to go right to work to recall him.

He put spikes in the ground. They began immediately to build the bridge. They actually built the 11th Street bridge around the existing bridge because the railroad wouldn’t allow the operating bridge to stop operation.

A year later, Fawcett was gone. He was recalled. But because the City Council had made a vote of the people before it could be taken back, they couldn’t stop the building of the bridge. So 100 years ago, that maneuver got us the Murray Morgan Bridge.

It really is something that belongs to the people of Tacoma. It’s great that it’s coming back. Of course it belongs to the people of Tacoma and I’m just absolutely thrilled you are going ahead with this and we’re taking back title and taking ownership of a landmark that is really part of our history. When we come up on that 100th anniversary, what could be more appropriate than it’s owned and restored by the people of Tacoma?

II. BRETT SANTHUFF, HISTORIC TACOMA BOARD MEMBER

The bridge is key to our civic identity. It has been, and will continue to be, an important link between downtown and the Port. A rehabilitated bridge will be a symbol of pride and encourage future private-public development at the bridge approaches on either side of the Foss Waterway. The Murray Morgan Bridge is a bridge that matters. Historic Tacoma listed the bridge on its watch list. In addition, the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation listed the bridge most endangered in 2008 and had a press conference on the bridge shortly after it was closed to traffic. Nationally, bridges of this era are in jeopardy. Tacoma can lead and be an example of how to save and maintain important bridges. The turnback agreement includes funding commitments that will allow rehabilitation of the center span. Historic Tacoma is thankful to see great progress made in reaching this agreement and eager to see work get under way. Looking to the future, just three short years away the Murray Morgan Bridge will turn 100 and we will have much to celebrate.

III. JORY ADKINS, TACOMA RESIDENT

I know that a bridge like this can easily be torn down and an off-the-shelf concrete bridge can be put up so you can still have access. But this bridge needs to stay because it is a part of Tacoma. One of the things important to me is I look out my window and I’m looking through a cable-stay bridge that is new and behind that I see the 11th Street bridge. To me, that cable-stay bridge has more value because of what I see behind it than if it were just that new bridge. Every city has a cable-stay bridge. But nowhere but Tacoma do they have a cable-stay with the Murray Morgan Bridge sitting behind it. I think it’s really important to always be able to see through something new in our town to something that shows our past.

IV. DON MEYER, FOSS WATERWAY DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY

I believe the Murray Morgan Bridge represents a critical corridor to economic development in the heart of Tacoma and a clear pathway to opportunity. It is time to implement an action plan that transforms a well-lit, rusting-in-place structure to a modern gateway that connects both sides of the Foss Waterway to downtown and the tide flats. We all know economic development follows infrastructure. The bridge can act as a capital attractor, job creator, and business builder. Over time, it will increase tax revenues for the city, county, state and port. The condition of the bridge we see today is a squandered opportunity. Tide flats business owners complain of inconvenience and longer commutes for their employees. Retailers on the east side of the Foss Waterway have left in pursuit of the customers unable to navigate an alternative route to their stores when 11th Street closed. It’s time to stop the decline and present a positive step forward toward investment momentum.

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For earlier Index coverage of the Murray Morgan Bridge, click on the following links:

Tacoma City Council approves Murray Morgan Bridge agreement (12/02/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1673461&more=0

City Council to vote Dec. 1 on Murray Morgan Bridge agreement (11/25/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1669624&more=0

Tacoma closer to owning Murray Morgan Bridge (11/19/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1666253&more=0

Murray Morgan Bridge rehab delayed (10/08/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1638707&more=0

Contract awarded for Murray Morgan Bridge cable project (06/17/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1571549&more=0

City, State Murray Morgan Bridge funding negotiations will continue (05/06/09) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1543929&more=0

Murray Morgan Mojo: $3 million project to replace bridge cables ready to begin (12/16/08) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1453283&more=0

City, State consider innovative financing plan for Murray Morgan Bridge rehab (12/11/08) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1450307&more=0

2008 Washington State Endangered Historic Properties — Murray Morgan Bridge (06/11/08) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1240070&more=0

Murray Morgan Bridge’s Endangered Legacy (05/30/08) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1230053&more=0

Murray Morgan Bridge tops list of Washington Trust’s annual Most Endangered Historic Properties (05/27/08) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1226325&more=0

Murray Morgan Bridge closure expensive decision (10/31/07) — http://tacomadailyindex.com/portals-code/list.cgi?paper=88&cat=23&id=1094891&more=0

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