BNSF proposes to replace Salmon Bay railroad bridge

The century-old railroad bridge spanning Salmon Bay near the Ballard Locks is nearing the end of its life, and plans are underway to replace the iconic structure.

The bascule-style, or “jackknife” bridge was built in 1912, with what was then brand new technology. But, it had a fatal flaw, according to Courtney Wallace from BNSF Railway.

“As it goes up and down with a counterweight, what we found was that the trunion bearing was getting fatigued,” Wallace told My Ballard. Trunion bearings are what allow the bridge to raise and lower, so the flaw resulted in the bridge being stuck open for six months in 1948 (photo below). Luckily, back then there was another railroad bridge east of the Ballard Bridge used by another railroad, Northern Pacific. That bridge was demolished in 1976, and the rail line eventually became the Burke-Gilman Trail.

Roughly 10 years ago, BNSF replaced the trunion bearings because workers heard some popping noises on the bridge. At that time, they predicted they had maybe two decades before having to address the issue again.

“Unfortunately, we’re starting to hear those popping sounds again, and dealing with more maintenance issues. So, we could replace the trunion bearings, but it’s going to be the same issue,” Wallace said. “Eventually that bridge is going to get stuck. It’s either going to get stuck in the ‘up’ position, which will impact freight traffic, or it gets stuck in the ‘down’ position, and boats going through the locks can’t pass through.” The bridge carries 30-40 passenger and freight trains each day.

BNSF is in an information gathering phase, getting input from the maritime community about the design of the bridge. They’re proposing a vertical-lift bridge, much like what spans the Willamette River in Portland. BNSF is proposing that the  Salmon Bay bridge have 155 feet of vertical clearance to allow for tall ships to pass through.

The proposal will go through the federal permitting process, with the US Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers as the lead agencies for the project. Wallace says the permitting phase will likely take at least two years, and if approved, construction will start alongside the current bridge, 50 feet to the west. She estimates construction would take three years, during which the old bridge would stay open. BNSF will do as much of the construction by water as possible, using barges to eliminate truck traffic. Once the new bridge is up and running, they’ll work on removing the old bridge.

Wallace says feedback from the maritime community so far has been positive. “Most folks understand the need to replace the bridge.” BNSF also plans to hold public meetings so community members can learn about the project and weigh in before they start the permitting process next year.

The bridge construction would be funded by BNSF — they expect it to cost $200 million.

Historic photos courtesy BNSF


19 thoughts to “BNSF proposes to replace Salmon Bay railroad bridge”

  1. Of course BNSF can afford to replace their bridge over Salmon Bay and they have the foresight to plan ahead for it. The City of Seattle and the Ballard Bridge? Not so much. It is way beyond time to start planning to replace the Ballard Bridge.

  2. They should built a bridge 15-20 feet taller than the current bridge. Then we should ban tall ships from the going further east. Then we should build a new Ballard Bridge, fixed and 15-20 feet taller, with a lane for bikes and another lane for a commuter train. There’s no need for tall ships anymore. Most traffic is pleasure boats and 15-20 feet more of clearance would accommodate all of them.

    1. Matt, you obviously don’t understand the amount of commercial traffic that comes through these bridges. How about the fishing fleet that calls Fisherman’s Terminal home? How about the tug companies that maintain and build their tugs on the ship canal?

      Seattle has some of the highest revenue on the West Coast generated by the Maritime Industry. The jobs the Maritime Industry creates, creates additional jobs out in the local communities.

      Let’s work together as a community and come up with solutions that work for everyone. Yes, the Ballard Bridge needs to be replaced. It needs to be wider to accommodate the two lanes of travel in each direction. It needs proper bike paths as it is barely wide enough for a single file rider. And then if there is a pedestrian…

      “dftl” and “Outraged Spinster” are both correct on who has right of way. Even the pleasure boats have the right of way. That’s why when the City of Seattle proposed limiting openings of the drawbridges to once per hour, they lost. They went for the all or nothing approach. What they should have proposed was an opening on the hour, twenty past the hour and forty past the hour. Pleasure and commercial boaters could work with a schedule such as that.

      However, lets not dwell on all that. Let’s look for solutions for everyone. How about asking BNSF to consider a “multi-purpose” bridge? One that could carry a lane of vehicle traffic in each direction as well as a bike/pedestrian lane? This would take traffic off of the Ballard Bridge.

    1. To be fair, this rail bridge is the one place in Seattle free of junkie scumf*cks, so maybe he should take credit for it.

  3. Built by the Fort Pitt Bridgeworks out of Canonsburg Pennsylvania… they built quite a number of the railroad bridges you’ll see out here in the Pacific Northwest. You can see several as you bike out or drive along the Cedar River Trail on the Maple Valley Highway from Renton… Probably a lot more all around the area were built by the company also…a real insight into what a pioneering area this really was just 110 years ago, that bridges were being manufactured and shipped over 2500 miles all this way from PA! Here’s their factory back in the early 1900’s in Canonsburg… Sorry to see the old veteran go…

  4. This bridge should be replace with a tunnel.

    this is a good spot for the “sunken tube” technique of send vehicle & rail traffic UNDER the waterway, eliminating the current regular delays to both commercial maritime traffic, and the rail (freight & passenger) traffic.

  5. Those ‘popping’ sounds might be coming from the brien of Mike O’Brain as he mentally sorts through what he would need to do to get reelected next year.
    Poor Mike, he’s under a lot of pressure!

Leave a Reply