Drawspan openings on the Highway 520 bridge used to be a special occasion, with tall boats passing once or twice a month. Motorists were rarely inconvenienced.
Now, traffic closures are common.
Over an 18-month stretch, the bridge opened 409 times to let boats through. That’s compared with only nine openings the previous year — before columns, barges, equipment and pontoons for the new, six-lane 520 bridge blocked the usual 64-foot-high boat passage, below the eastern high-rise of the old bridge at Medina.
Tall boats were forced to
change their routes to cross using the center drawspan, where the old highway retracts.
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It is the price of progress: hundreds of motorists and transit riders delayed or deterred as the old bridge opened 332 times for pleasure boats and 77 for barges, in the 18 months from April 2012 through September 2013, according to a Seattle Times review of bridge logs.
But because of a state mistake, the frequent openings will continue for longer than planned. The discovery of cracks in the first batch of pontoons caused costly repairs and delays, prolonging the overall timetable for construction.
The state changed its goal for a grand opening of the new bridge, from late 2014 until sometime in 2016.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) is trying to alleviate some anguish by providing information and alerts so drivers can detour, or prepare to stop on the deck and birdwatch.
The average opening lasts 18 minutes.
The longest was 35 minutes, a remarkably good lack of breakdowns for a bridge half-a-century old. Dave Becher, state construction manager for the 520 replacement, said frequent use keeps the drawspan parts lubricated, and the staff well-trained.
Records show the state has continually asked the Coast Guard to impose additional drawspan restrictions during sports events, to ease the burden on motorists, to the point where Coast Guard officers say they have reached their limit.
Boat passage is banned weekdays from 6:30 to 10 a.m., and from 3:30 to 7 p.m.
With two hours’ notice, vessels 44 to 64 feet tall, which formerly would pass beneath the east high- rise, can request a drawspan opening.
Boats of lesser height can pass the west high-rise near Foster Island.
Busy times tend to be late in the day Thursday and Friday in summer, and the same vessels seek return passage on Sunday afternoons.
Boats under 64 feet high will return to the east high rise near the tail end of the project, when contractors shift midlake to fasten the final, center pontoons.
“My guess it will be sometime in the summer of 2015,” Becher said.
Clearance under the new 520 bridge will be 70 feet, matching Interstate 90 east of Mercer Island.
Making rules for boats
Boats were here first.
Decades before the first Mercer Island floating bridge in 1940, the lake supported passenger ferries, coal vessels, even whaling crews who outfitted their ships at Meydenbauer Bay in Bellevue.
With 7,044 registered vessels, mostly pleasure craft, King County ranks No. 1 nationally, according to boatinfoworld.com.
Scott Rush, owner of the sailboat Quartet, with a 60-foot mast, has used the drawspan 13 times but only twice at 7 p.m. Rush strives to avoid commute times.
“No one’s flipped me off yet, but I get through there as quick as I can, and don’t wait for the drawspan to open all the way,” he said.
“I understand their frustration.”
Because the Quartet docks at Newport Yacht Basin in Bellevue, a drawspan opening is the only way to partake of the whole lake, or to sail Puget Sound.
Sometimes, the bridge tender calls boaters and asks them to alter their schedules, so they can combine in a single opening. But this happens only one-sixth of the time.
When construction began April 1, 2012, there were no banned hours for vessels. Within three weeks, the state and Coast Guard agreed to peak-time restrictions.
Yet drivers were outraged over being stopped minutes after 9 a.m. By July the hours changed again, so boat traffic must wait until 10 a.m.
The state continues to seek maritime restrictions to ease traffic when there are sporting events in Sodo, and the feds say no.
Coast Guard bridge administrator Randall Overton replied to the DOT in an email last year: “While it is reasonable to expect increases in traffic during these events, there are other roadway options to move traffic in and out of the area,” and the project “has already placed significant constraints on, and limited the navigability options for Lake Washington.”
The Coast Guard will restrict boats in early August, when the low-flying Seafair jet teams need shutdowns of nearby I-90. And it granted boating restrictions for three Husky football games this season.
However, Lt. Cmdr. Steve Fischer turned down a DOT request for maritime restrictions during 19 fall events in Sodo.
“Future request for closures that are tied to Safeco, Century Link field events will not be approved unless there is a compelling need for approval,” he warned in a message to DOT.
Will the state ask anyway?
Travis Phelps, a DOT spokesman, said crowds of 20,000 people or more cause slowdowns in the rectangle formed by I-90, Highway 520, I-5 and I-405.
So if Sounders and Mariners games happen the same day, or Sodo events overlap with a Seattle Center event, the state might ask again for boating restrictions, he said.
A few times a year, such as Independence Day weekend, DOT clears the east high-rise area to help boaters.
No big outcry
While the more frequent crossings may be an annoyance to some motorists, the complaints don’t seem to be streaming in.
“I have not heard a single thing, from anybody, on that topic,” said Dick Paylor, past president of the pro-car Eastside Transportation Association.
The INRIX traffic-data firm said the drawspan openings are brief enough not to cause significant congestion on I-90.
However, the bridge closures create vehicle backups that reach the University of Washington, filling Montlake Boulevard until rush hour, said Colleen McAleer, a Laurelhurst resident active in neighborhood coalitions. Any closure after 1 p.m. “is sort of hard to recover from,” she said.
Linda Ballew, executive director of the Greater Redmond Transportation Management Association, said compared with work zones in Seattle, the drawspan openings are a minor obstacle.
“We’re pretty adaptive here,” she said. “People in Seattle are pretty tolerant of what’s going on, because they know the end result is we’re going to have a new bridge.”
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @mikelindbloman