In March, as the disease caused by the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV‑2) was rapidly mushrooming into an unprecedented public health emergency, Seattle transportation officials made the monumental decision to close the West Seattle Bridge due to exponentially-increasing crack growth under the structure.
Prior to its closure and the drop in traffic resulting from Governor Inslee’s stay home, stay healthy orders, the bridge was the single busiest road within Seattle city limits, carrying over 90,000 cars daily in 2019 — 19% more traffic than the next-busiest road. Here’s where things stand now:
- The West Seattle Bridge will be closed indefinitely. If it ever reopens (and that’s far from guaranteed), it will not open before 2022. Even if reopened with reinforcements, it will last at most for another decade.
- The “lower” Spokane Street bridge is still open, but only to transit, freight, and emergency vehicles. Keeping this link open is imperative for first-responders and critical services in West Seattle.
Residential neighborhoods and non-arterial roads are not designed to carry the bridge’s load, and neither is the 1st Ave South Bridge, which carries SR 99 to Georgetown. The bridge is a significant choke point for drivers during rush hour.
West Seattle needs to be connected to the rest of the region. Doing so in a sustainable, equitable, efficient, and timely manner is the difficult task ahead.
Let’s examine some of the options city and regional leaders have to choose from, and what factors they should take into consideration when making a decision.
The Duwamish Waterway is the defining geographical feature separating West Seattle from the rest of the city. The wide and heavily-industrialized estuary is the key point for Seattle’s shipping industry.
To complicate matters, access to the Duwamish for shipping is subject to federal regulations. Believe it or not, vessels has the right of way at crossings like the 1st Ave S Bridge, making them subject to frequent off-peak openings. Changing the bridge opening regulations would require an act of Congress. To protect uninterrupted traffic, the old bridge rose high enough above the Duwamish.
While The Urbanist presented a case for not rebuilding the expressway, it may not be feasible to leave West Seattle with no automobile crossing north of the 1st Ave S Bridge. As the article concedes, the city does not contemplate tearing the bridge down without replacing it. It is extremely likely that there will be a new bridge and that it will be designed to carry cars.
That doesn’t mean a replacement must be as large and car-friendly as the old bridge, seven lanes wide and one hundred and forty feet tall.
To the contrary: there is a golden opportunity to re-orient West Seattle from scratch to become more transit-friendly. Combining the new road bridge with a structure that carries light rail as well is an option being explored by Sound Transit and the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).
The benefits seem evident: both Sound Transit and SDOT could save money with a multimodal facility. However, Sound Transit projects mustn’t be rushed, and combining two projects will, and should, take more time.
West Seattle Link design won’t be done until at least 2025 (unless it is sped up), and construction is not anticipated to be completed until 2030. The lifecycle of a Sound Transit Link extension is methodical and reliant upon public outreach.
Rushed infrastructure investments can hurt our communities in the long-run.
We are still living with the ramifications of the construction of Interstate 5 through the heart of Seattle. Nearly 4,500 parcels were cleared within city limits to build the highway, which permanently divided and destroyed historic working-class neighborhoods. This concrete canyon remains a fixture of Seattle today.
First Hill residents were not pleased then by I‑5’s construction, and history has proved them right. To rectify past mistakes, it might cost $250 million now to put a lid over I‑5 downtown, a project that NPI strongly supports.
West Seattle residents do not want to be without a solution. Yet since best-case reinforcements to the bridge might expire by the early 2030s, perhaps a dual-purpose bridge, tall enough to clear the Duwamish Waterway but not as tall as the old span, might be the most efficient way forward.
After Governor Inslee’s stay-at-home orders are relaxed, more commuters can be expected to venture to downtown and beyond. A good portion of those should turn to transit to avoid snarled traffic on detours.
The lower bridge has remained open to transit, bicycles, and pedestrians during the shutdown, allowing nine hundred buses daily (during normal times) to easily reach SODO without traffic. This remedy isn’t perfect — the lower bridge is also subject to bridge openings. But it is better than the full detour.
Talk of improving bus connections between West Seattle to the water taxi between Seacrest Park and Seattle has also surfaced. These were trialed last year during the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, with great success.
Some West Seattle residents have even proposed to adopt “inverse park-and-rides”, where residents could leave a car at a lot in SODO and use transit to get to their vehicles each day. SDOT has been receptive to citizen input but has not yet identified any planned courses of action.
There has been talk of Washington State Ferries re-routing the Fauntleroy/Southworth and Fauntleroy/Vashon sailings to Colman Dock.
Yet the dock is undergoing extensive renovation. The dock has two slips now and will have three by 2023; accommodating four ferry routes there will always be difficult. More realistically, the King County Water Taxi probably will have trips and routes added. These passenger-only boats have a lot more flexibility than the passenger-car ferries that must dock at Colman or Fauntleroy.
Currently, the water taxi runs a handful of trips during rush-hour from Colman Dock to Seacrest Park and Vashon.
According to Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold (West Seattle’s representative), conversations with the county and state governments regarding increased water taxi service and ferry re-routing has begun.
The loss of such a critical facility simply cannot be rectified overnight.
Telecommuting, already widespread due to the ongoing pandemic, will have to become more of a permanent solution for people in West Seattle.
And investments must be made in West Seattle to reduce demand for travel outside the area for essential services.
West Seattle does not have a full-size medical center, making it even more important to keep the lower bridge open to essential services.
Ultimately, it will be weeks or months before any significant decisions on the bridge’s future will be made. As discussions advance, we will be lending our support to a transit-oriented replacement for the West Seattle Bridge.