O’ West Seattle Bridge! How I miss traveling along those graceful arches high above the Duwamish River. The swoop of its 1,300-foot roadway — the very model of utilitarian elegance — offered speedy access to Interstate 5 and the world beyond.
I have to admit, before it closed two years ago, I never gave the span much thought.
There must be a maxim for transportation planning that goes something like: The more vital a piece of infrastructure, the more people take it for granted. According to the Seattle Department of Transportation, the bridge in West Seattle was the city’s busiest, typically carrying more than 100,000 vehicles every day.
I think I can speak for all my fellow West Seattleites when I say, “I never dreamed of a day when it wouldn’t be there.”
And then that day arrived, March 23, 2020. What happened since, and how people feel about the bridge reopening, says a lot about Seattle. We are resilient and sometimes rude. Impatient and process-oriented. Able to find gallows humor. Concerned about bridges, but not enough to make them a high priority. And we don’t believe officials who offer timelines, particularly on major transportation projects. Remember Bertha?
Gov. Jay Inslee had just issued a stay at home order (for two whole weeks!) when then-Mayor Jenny Durkan announced the immediate closure of the West Seattle Bridge. Expanding cracks had engineers concerned. This was no gradual reduction or slowdown. One day you could drive on it, the next day — poof!
The community impact was immediate. Yard signs soon started cropping up around West Seattle: “Never leaving, even if we could.”
This being Seattle, City Hall formed a citizens committee, co-chaired by former Mayor Greg Nickels and Paulina Lopez of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition. Many, many questions were asked, and all were fair, said Nickels, who has one of those “Never leaving …” yard signs in front of his West Seattle home.
“I would say that no question is ridiculous. When a bridge closes with a couple of hours notice that affects 100,000 trips a day, you have the right to ask pretty much any question that comes to your mind,” he said.
SDOT rerouted traffic along West Marginal Way Southwest to the First Avenue South Bridge. Access to I-5 went through Georgetown. When things got really backed up, the South Park Bridge offered an alternative. Neighborhoods experienced unprecedented levels of congestion, prompting concerns about pollution and air quality.
Part of the mitigation centered on getting people to walk, bike or take transit. The outcome of those efforts won’t be known for a while, but the city was immeasurably helped by the pandemic lockdown and remote work, said Heather Marx, head of SDOT’s West Seattle Bridge response.
“This is a big deal. Big deals bring out the best and worst in us, sometimes in the same day,” said Marx, who estimates that she has attended hundreds of community and departmental bridge meetings, possibly thousands. “I want to thank everyone who engaged with us, whether you had something nice to say, or less than sweet, I appreciate it because it means West Seattle hasn’t given up. They haven’t fallen into helplessness. This whole thing is terrible, but when you’re presented with a problem, you should probably try to fix it, and that’s what we’re doing.”
There are two truisms about Seattle made apparent by the bridge closure.
The first: When traffic gets bad, someone will start talking about gondolas.
While dreams of a city gondola have been around for decades, three West Seattleites took advantage of the bridge closure “to promote a gondola as a high frequency/high-capacity way to connect the hilly West Seattle peninsula to the Link light rail spine …” They call it SkyLink. Realistically, a more appropriate name might be Pie-in-the SkyLink, but perhaps they’re on to something.
The second: Someone will try to make political hay out of any transportation disruption. Last year, Seattle City Council candidate Kenneth Wilson ran on a platform that SDOT planners were too cautious and cars should be allowed back on the bridge. “Open access now!” read his website. “The people of West Seattle have put up with enough disruption, noise, added pollution, and hours of time.”
Wilson lost to incumbent Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who earned more than 59% of the vote.
The worst part of the bridge closure are the lane-cutters.
For most of my commute downtown in the last few years, I took the King County Water Taxi or rode my bicycle across the Spokane Street Swing Bridge. But there were occasions when I had to drive, and sit in a line of cars. I saw those rule-flouters, trying to sneak along in the wrong lane, waiting for the chance to cut in. I never let them, riding the bumper of the car in front of me in stark disregard of best driving practices.
It continues to amaze me that lane-cutters always find someone who lets them, or who doesn’t care. Rarely does a driver lay on the horn. We’re just not that kind of city.
Politeness aside, no one wants to see a repeat of the West Seattle experience anytime soon. But urgency regarding bridge repair seems lacking.
The City Council last year authorized $100 million in bonds to finally tackle deteriorated spans, including seismic upgrades to the Ballard and Fremont bridges.
Councilmember Alex Pedersen, chair of the Transportation & Seattle Public Utilities Committee, spearheaded the effort. He expressed frustration that the Harrell administration has not yet moved forward with a financing package.
“We want to honor and learn from the challenges faced by people in West Seattle over the past two years,” said Pedersen. “If we don’t move ahead with actions to repair and upgrade our other bridges, then it seems like nothing has been learned or gained from the West Seattle experience.”
Repairs to the West Seattle Bridge along with the Spokane Street Swing Bridge and traffic management were estimated at $175 million, but the project is expected to be under budget, said Marx. The fixes will last 40 years, fingers crossed.
Work was expected to be complete at the end of June, but the citywide concrete strike and other factors pushed that back. A new timeline has not been unveiled. “Construction is construction,” said Marx. “If people have a feeling of skepticism about whether construction projects can ever come in on time, I get it.”
Meanwhile, one local gift shop is still selling “West Seattle — Why would you ever leave” hoop earrings. They cost $6.50, but the irony is priceless.