Campaign pays off for a bridge, a city

The News TribuneDecember 6, 2012 

An uncooperative economy has stymied many a big plan for Tacoma’s Foss Waterway. But there’s something to be said for holding your own.

A good example is the prospect of hanging on to Johnny’s Seafood Co., a quintessentially Tacoma business on the east side of the Foss.

The company at one point had been on the brink of packing up and moving to a strip mall in Fife. Now, through a transaction engineered by the Foss Waterway Development Authority, the declining property will be rehabilitated and kept up by Johnny’s parent company, Pacific Seafood.

Farther up the waterway looms another, grander resurrection: The reopening of the Murray Morgan Bridge after a seven-year closure.

In the pre-Dome, pre-Narrows Bridge era, this towering 1913-vintage structure was – like the chateauesque Stadium High School and Florentine Old City Hall – one of the landmarks that said, “This can only be Tacoma.”

It was also a crucial economic link between downtown and the industrial Tideflats, carrying 11th Street traffic across the Foss.

But the bridge had several near-death experiences in the last couple of decades, chiefly because its one-time owner, the Washington Department of Transportation, couldn’t be bothered with maintaining it properly.

By skipping paint jobs and otherwise neglecting the span, WSDOT let the Murray Morgan slide so far into rusty decrepitude that the highway safety people started to plan its demolition. That was WSDOT’s formal recommendation in 2003.

Had the state had its way, Tacoma would have lost not only the icon but the 11th Street corridor. The northern reaches of the Foss’ east side would have been cut off, permanently hindering development that involved traffic-dependent businesses and enterprises that might rely on a connection to the heart of the city.

It didn’t help matters when a much newer bridge with some similar engineering features collapsed in Minnesota, killing or injuring more than 100 people. The Murray Morgan immediately fell under suspicion and was soon closed by WSDOT.

But the span turned out to have plenty of friends. Bridge-loving citizens and civic leaders had already mounted a campaign that ultimately won enough money for its restoration.

Sometimes you win by not losing. The securing of Johnny’s Seafood will preserve the ambience of an important piece of the urban waterfront. The rescue of the Murray Morgan will help the Foss remain the Foss.

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