Even as politicians and officials acknowledge something should be done to improve safety on the Aurora Bridge — where four people died last week in a crash between a Ride the Ducks vehicle and charter bus — no one seems prepared yet to say what should happen.
State lawmakers are asking transportation officials to provide ideas for improving safety on the Aurora Bridge, where four people died Thursday in a crash between a Ride the Ducks amphibious vehicle and a charter bus.
Transportation officials and lawmakers have been concerned for years about safety on the bridge, where six traffic lanes are squeezed onto the tightest six-lane highway bridge in the state. There is no median.
Thursday’s collision brought those long-standing worries into sharp relief: The wreck killed four and left many more injured, several critically. The cause is under investigation.
Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, said he’s drafting a letter from area lawmakers calling on the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) to undertake an examination of the bridge and offer options for making it safer.
Transportation officials aren’t saying much yet about how they’d proceed.
SDOT staffers Friday wouldn’t discuss safety ideas, past or future. For now, they’re still dealing with the immediate response, said Dongho Chang, chief traffic engineer.
WSDOT will let city officials take the lead on figuring out what might be done to improve safety, said state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson, but will help however it can.
Despite traffic-safety improvements on other areas along Highway 99, “Obviously we’re at the point where we need to look at the bridge,” Peterson said.
This isn’t the first time a discussion over the bridge’s safety has played out.
In 2003, WSDOT recommended a plan to move the bridge sidewalks below the road deck, to allow wider car lanes, and a 2-foot-wide median barrier on the road deck, at a cost of $29 million.
Improvements such as installing a median barrier have been made on other bridges.
Seattle transportation officials faced a similar problem with head-on crashes between West Seattle and Interstate 5. The city added a narrow steel median barrier to the Spokane Street Viaduct in 1998, based on public demands and a crusade by then-state Sen. Mike Heavey, D-West Seattle. When the whole corridor was expanded and seismically strengthened in 2012, eastbound and westbound lanes were placed on separate viaducts.
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Peterson called the 2003 recommendations “a solid place to start from,” but added that new analysis is needed. Others say they’d like to see the 2003 recommendations put in place.
“I think that having a median and expanding the lanes would definitely enhance safety,” said Mary Lou Dickerson, a former state representative from Seattle who was one of several who pushed for safety improvements on the Aurora Bridge after a fatal collision on the span in 1999.
But “the major issue was the money,” Dickerson said. “As I recall.”
Range of ideas
It’s too soon to know what could best improve the span, but talking Friday, Carlyle checked off a range of possibilities.
First, the smaller ones: cutting the 40 mph speed limit, installing signs to remind people to drive more slowly, reducing the bridge from six lanes to four to provide for more room per lane.
Or maybe bigger structural changes should be undertaken, such as installing a median barrier, or implementing the full 2003 recommendation and moving the sidewalks beneath the structure to provide the barrier and wider lanes.
“I don’t think we should assume there is only one solution,” Carlyle said.
Officials have a responsibility to do something, Carlyle said, but there’s also a public obligation to be thoughtful in how to proceed.
Before Thursday, there had been 202 collisions on the Aurora Bridge, about six-tenths of a mile, since the start of 2001.
They caused 124 injuries, including as many as 11 serious injuries. Twenty-one crashes involved vehicles crossing the centerline, causing 16 injuries, as many as five of those serious. Two crashes came during U-turns, a review of the state database shows.
For the whole 7½ miles from Roy Street in South Lake Union to the north city limit, there were 5,545 crashes in the same period, causing 3,538 injuries and at least 22 deaths.
So Aurora Avenue North’s crash frequency per mile overall is double the rate on the bridge. That shouldn’t be surprising, as other stretches have more intersections, stopped cars, turning vehicles and pedestrians than the bridge. Eight of those killed on the Aurora Avenue North corridor were walking, and one was on a bicycle.
Ultimately, transportation officials will have to have a conversation on how to allocate space between vehicles and pedestrians, Peterson said.
“That’s assuming a median barrier is a solution on the table,” she said.
As for widening the lean 9½-foot lanes, that’s not a given. SDOT, among others, prefers limiting the lane size on certain arterials because it prods people to drive more slowly.
Talk to officials about improving safety on the bridge and eventually money comes into the conversation.
Dickerson and Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, said the $29 million price on the 2003 recommendations ultimately stalled those measures.
Transportation projects wind up lumped together in larger project lists, where different needs compete for funding.
“Because if we pay for this, then somebody else’s project can’t be done,” Dickerson, who used to sit on the House Transportation Committee, said. “There are trade-offs done all time.”
Kohl-Welles pointed out how difficult it has been to get people on board for raising taxes to pay for such projects.
Former Senate Transportation Committee Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, said she doesn’t recall being asked to pay for median barriers in the state budget, and she questions whether the Legislature would have even given those money.
Haugen said the multibillion-dollar Highway 520 bridge, the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement, and the Eastside’s I-405 were consuming a huge share of new gas taxes passed in 2003 and 2005. “We didn’t go far down the priority list” of other requests, she said.
But the lawmakers did find — just barely — $6 million for suicide-prevention fencing on the Aurora Bridge, she said.
“There were a lot of people who came to testify for that issue,” and none to speak for other improvements to the bridge, Haugen recalled Friday night.
Legislative staff Friday were still trying to determine whether there had been requests for Aurora Bridge improvements in the transportation package that passed the Legislature and was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee this year.
Kohl-Welles said the state should have done more to improve the bridge’s safety by now.
“The responsibility here is really with the state,” Kohl-Welles, “And SDOT.”
“I think,” said Kohl-Welles, “we all should have done more.”