Politics & Government

Murray Morgan Bridge work gets boost with surprise loan

It will still need to be paid back, but a $20 million loan that materialized suddenly from the state Department of Transportation last week is a windfall of sorts for one of Tacoma’s major public works projects: restoring the Murray Morgan Bridge.

And the loan’s terms are almost too good to turn down: A zero percent interest rate, a 10-year term and a balloon repayment structure – meaning the money doesn’t have to be paid back for a decade.

“This is the first I’ve heard of something like this,” city traffic engineer Kurtis Kingsolver said. “This is a tremendous opportunity for the city.”

Combined with $37 million in state and federal funds already dedicated, the new money will effectively put the city over the top in covering the price tag for a restoration project once thought to be a pipedream.

“On the street level, this (money) will take care of the whole deal,” Kingsolver said.

Kingsolver gave the Tacoma City Council the good news Tuesday, telling council members that a state engineer in DOT’s local programs office called him last week, wondering if the city could put such a loan to good use.

“I think we can do that,” King-solver recalled telling him.

The only catch: The city had to work quickly – obligating the money to a project by Oct. 1.

Citing safety concerns, the state in 2007 closed the then-94-year-old bridge that connects downtown with the Tideflats, saying at one point that the span should be demolished. That angered city officials and sparked a save-the-bridge campaign, leading to plans for the city to reclaim ownership and restore the span once known as the 11th Street Bridge.

Under a “turnback” agreement this year, the city took ownership and received $37 million in state and federal funds for restoration. The city used some of that money to do rehab work that allowed the bridge to reopen to foot and bicycle traffic this year. City engineers planned to use the rest primarily to restore the bridge’s three-span steel truss over the Thea Foss Waterway.

That left the city about $24 million short in covering upgrades to both approaches and for potential seismic enhancement work, officials have said. Engineers planned to conduct the work in two phases, starting with the already-funded truss work, followed by the approach work when funding could be found.

Now, with the new loan, the city can do all the work at once.

“We won’t have to close the bridge down a second time,” said Tom Rutherford, the project manager.

The loan will cover resurfacing and structural work on the approaches, as well as some painting and other restoration, Rutherford added.

“We may not need it all, either,” depending on bids, Rutherford said of the loan.

By October, the city expects to receive bids from three project finalists, with plans to start construction next year and finish it by year’s end 2012, Rutherford said. The bridge can then be reopened to vehicle traffic, he said.

The only remaining funds needed to finish the project would be for subsurface seismic enhancements – work the city “isn’t sure we’ll even need to do yet,” Kingsolver said.

Asked by the council where the DOT found the loan money, King-solver said he didn’t know.

“I didn’t ask too many questions,” he said.

A DOT engineer who administers the area’s local programs office did not immediately return a phone call Tuesday.

“It’s good we have an opportunity to restore a historic icon,” Mayor Marilyn Strickland said. “It’s good news.”