NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, May 4th, 2020

Charting a path forward after the unexpected closure of the highly used West Seattle Bridge

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.

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