George Washington Memorial Bridge

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George Washington Memorial Bridge
For other bridges of the same name, see Washington Bridge (disambiguation). The George Washington Memorial Bridge (commonly called the Aurora Bridge) is a cantilever and truss bridge that carries Aurora Avenue N. ( State Route 99) over the west end of Seattle's Lake Union between Queen Anne and Fremont, just east of the Fremont Cut. The bridge is 2,945 ft (898 m) long, 70 ft (21 m) wide, and 167 ft (51 m) above the water, and is owned and operated by the Washington State Department of Transportation. The bridge was opened to traffic on February 22, 1932. It was accepted to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. The bridge is a popular location for suicide jumpers and numerous reports have used the bridge as a case study in fields ranging from suicide prevention to the effects of prehospital care on trauma victims. In 1998 a bus driver was shot and killed while driving over the bridge, causing his bus to crash and resulting in the death of one of the passengers.

The bridge is 2,945 ft (898 m) long, 70 ft (21 m) wide, 167 ft (51 m) above the water and is owned and operated by the Washington State Department of Transportation. There are two v-shaped cantilever sections supporting the bridge deck, each 325 ft (99 m) long, balanced on large concrete pilings at opposite sides of the ship canal which serve as the two main supporting anchors. Some 828 timber piles were driven for the foundation of the south anchor and 684 piles for the north. They range in size from 110 to 120 feet (34 to 37 m) and rest 50 to 55 feet (15 to 17 m) below the surface of the water. Together, the anchors support a load of 8,000 tons. Their construction required a pile driver that was specially designed to work underwater. A 150 ft (46 m) long Warren truss suspended span connects the two cantilevers in the middle. The bridge's main span is 475 ft (145 m) long. At either end of the bridge there are additional Warren truss spans which connect the cantilevered spans to the highway.

Construction on the bridge piers began in 1929, with construction of the bridge following shortly afterwards in 1931, with its dedication held on February 22, 1932, George Washington's 200th birthday. It opened to traffic the same day. The bridge was the final link in what was then called the Pacific Highway (today's U.S. Route 99), which ran from Canada to Mexico. The bridge crosses the Lake Union section of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and, unlike earlier bridges across the canal, the height of the Aurora Bridge eliminated the need for a drawbridge. The Seattle City Council voted to build connecting portions of the highway through the Woodland Park Zoo, a decision which generated considerable controversy at the time. It was designed by the Seattle architectural firm Jacobs & Ober, with Ralph Ober as the lead engineer on the project. Ober died in August, 1931, of a brain hemorrhage while the bridge was still under construction. Federal funding programs were not yet available, so the bridge was funded by Seattle, King County, and the state of Washington. The bridge was nominated for the National Register of Historic Places on January 2, 1980 for its "functional and aesthetic" design qualities and for its historical status as the first bridge constructed in the region without streetcar tracks. It was accepted to the National Register on July 16, 1982. A local landmark, the Fremont Troll"a large cement sculpture of a troll clutching a real-life Volkswagen Beetle"was installed under the bridge's north end in 1990. Up to half of the $40,000 cost for the artwork was donated from Seattle's Neighborhood Matching Fund, a local program to raise money for community projects. The sculpture was heavily vandalized in the year following its construction and large floodlights were installed on the bridge to discourage further damage. Following the collapse of the Minneapolis I-35W arch-truss bridge on August 1, 2007, the Washington State Department of Transportation was directed to perform inspections of all steel cantilever bridges in the state that used gusset plates in their design, including the George Washington Memorial Bridge. The bridge had earlier been certified as structurally sound with no serious deficiencies detected. In 2007, the Federal Highway Administration National Bridge Inventory found the bridge to be "functionally obsolete". The bridge was given a sufficiency rating of 55.2% and evaluated to be "better than minimum adequacy to tolerate being left in place as is". Its foundations and railings met the acceptable standards and no immediate corrective action was needed to improve it.

The bridge's height and pedestrian access make it a popular location for suicide jumpers. Since construction, there have been over 230 completed suicides from the bridge, with nearly 50 deaths occurring in the past decade. The first suicide occurred in January 1932, when a shoe salesman leapt from the bridge before it was completed. Numerous reports have been written about the high incidence of suicide on the bridge, many of them using the bridge as a case study in fields ranging from suicide prevention to the effects of prehospital care on trauma victims. A 160-pound person covers the 180 feet in 2.2 seconds. Depending upon the configuration of the body during the fall, final speed is about 55 miles per hour (89 km/h). Despite the force of impact, jumpers occasionally survive the fall from the bridge, though not without sustaining serious injuries. News sources have referred to the George Washington Memorial Bridge as a suicide bridge and, in December 2006, six emergency phones and 18 signs were installed on the bridge to encourage people to seek help instead of jumping. In late 2006 a group of community activists and political leaders living near the bridge created the Fremont Individuals and Employees Nonprofit to Decrease Suicides (FRIENDS), their primary focus being the installation of a suicide barrier on the bridge. In 2007, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire allocated $1.4 million in her supplemental budget for the construction of an 8-foot (2.4 m) high suicide prevention fence to help reduce the number of suicides on the bridge. Construction of the fence began in Spring 2010, and is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year. Some work is too loud to be done at night, causing weekend lane closures on the bridge.

Metro bus tragedy
On November 27, 1998, King County Metro driver Mark McLaughlin, the driver of a southbound route 359 Express articulated bus, was shot and killed by a passenger, Silas Cool, while driving across the bridge. Cool then shot himself as the bus veered across two lanes of traffic and plunged off the bridge's eastern side onto the roof of an apartment building below. Herman Liebelt, a passenger on the bus, later died of injuries he sustained in the accident. A service for McLaughlin was held on December 8, 1998, at Key Arena in Seattle. Numerous state and county officials and over 100 transit drivers attended the service, which included a procession of over eighty Metro buses and vans. Metro announced their plans to retire the number 359 as a route designation and replace it with route 358. According to estimates from the Washington State Department of Transportation, repairs to the bridge cost over $18,000. Medical claims from the victims against King County amounted to $2.3 million.


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