The Seattle Department of Transportation announced Thursday that it is easing restrictions and allowing more motorists to cross the West Seattle swing bridge. For the past year, commuters to central Seattle have needed to take detours to cross the Duwamish River via the First Avenue South Bridge, leading to high congestion and stop-and-go traffic, often adding 30 to 45 minutes to travel times.
People needing travel access to life-saving medical treatments, like chemotherapy or dialysis, or to medical jobs, West Seattle restaurants and retail businesses can now apply for access to the low bridge.
According to SDOT, the West Seattle Bridge closure has added to the pandmic’s impact for restaurant and retail owners and workers, who have expressed challenges in receiving and transporting supplies due to the high traffic flow.
“Each business will have 10 round-trips that they are allowed to take in any given month,” Seattle Mobility Director Heather Marx said. “They can submit as many as three license plates to take those trips.”
Marx estimates that 700 retail and restaurant sector businesses in West Seattle will be eligible to apply, but stresses that the pass is not to be used to make regular trips over the bridge.
“If we observe through the data and through the license plate collection that folks seem to be abusing it — for example, if we start to note commute-like behavior, crossing the bridge at the same time every morning and coming back the same time every afternoon — we’ll definitely be in touch with those folks,” Marx said.
Similarly, motorists who qualify cannot simply start using the bridge but must first be approved by SDOT and meet specific eligibility requirements.
The low bridge became a vital connector from one of Seattle’s largest neighborhoods to the rest of the city and to Interstate 5 after SDOT suddenly closed the wider, upper bridge March 23, 2020. The entire bridge structure is part of the West Seattle Freeway. In a 2013 routine inspection, SDOT found that the freeway’s West Seattle High-Rise Bridge had “four sets of cracks in the bridge support structure.”
Then, from 2013 to late 2019, SDOT “regularly monitored the cracks, preformed [sic] ongoing maintenance, and began analyzing mitigation options” and “did not observe deterioration that called for remediation efforts,” according to a public statement from SDOT.
On March 19, 2020, a structural engineering consultant working for SDOT notified the agency that a “new analysis of previously collected data raising larger concerns and a recommendation that closure may be necessary at some point,” also according to the SDOT statement. “We conducted daily observations over the next four days to verify the consultant’s recommendations in the field.
“It was not until Monday, March 23, 2020[,] that we found significant new cracking, which confirmed growth had rapidly accelerated to the point where there was no other option but to close the bridge.”
The low bridge runs the same course as the high bridge and was kept open, but to ensure the low bridge wasn’t overloaded and access blocked, it was restricted to transit, freight, first-responders and a limited number of local users, such as longshore workers.
In January of this year, enforcement cameras went up at the mouth of the mainland entrance, enforcing a hefty $75 fine during unauthorized hours. According to SDOT, traffic declined by 38% after the placement of the cameras, prompting their decision to ease the travel restrictions.
SDOT’s new rules would add approximately 450 vehicle trips per day.
Anyone will be allowed to use the low bridge from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays; weekday restrictions will remain the same: No general traffic from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m.
SDOT emphasized that this is a temporary expansion of the use of the low bridge, and if the bridge were to become overcrowded at any point, they will revoke access and cut down on the number of people who can use it.
“We’re expecting even more freight once terminal 5 opens up,” Marx said. Even if everything goes smoothly, there’s a chance the expanded access will be eliminated altogether once Terminal 5 reopens in late 2021.
A big unknown is how the impeded bridge access will affect traffic to and from West Seattle once the city opens up more and vaccines become available to additional categories of people, on April 15. The high bridge is scheduled to reopen in mid-2022 following repairs to cracked girders.
City leaders announced in November that they are prioritizing the bridge repair over other infrastructure projects, and despite the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, city officials believe they are on track to meet a mid-2022 opening date. In March, SDOT announced that they are applying for federal grant funding in the hopes of expediting the upper bridge repairs.
Read more in the Apr. 14-20, 2021 issue.