How long does it take to get a traffic light fixed in Seattle? When a signal went on the fritz near the West Seattle Bridge this month, the city's transportation department waited nearly 11 hours to send a crew. Why such a long wait?

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When a traffic light went on the fritz at a major West Seattle intersection one recent evening, Seattle’s transportation department waited nearly 11 hours to send a repair crew.

By the time the three-man crew arrived the next morning during rush hour, traffic was backed up more than a mile and cars were spilling into side streets, looking for other ways to reach the West Seattle Bridge.

Why did the department wait so long to deal with the problem of the flashing light, especially at an intersection traveled by more than 43,000 vehicles a day?

“The signal required specialized diagnosis and repair expertise,” the department explained in a written statement.

What it didn’t say was the expertise was readily available and could have been on the scene the night the problem was reported.

But because of management decisions and a staffing experiment begun last month, no one with expertise was on duty and no one was called in.

“We used to have a nighttime crew that worked until 10 p.m.,” said one department employee with knowledge of the situation.

The night shift was eliminated in January to save money and was replaced with an on-call roster that had rules about who could volunteer for overtime, said the employee, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal.

The electricians’ union contract requires everybody to be available for overtime. But the manager supervising the electricians instituted a rule in August that only electricians living within 30 minutes of the workplace could volunteer for overtime, according to the employee.

The manager was Paul Jackson Jr., a former division chief who led the city’s botched response to the December 2008 snowstorms and who figured prominently in a yearlong human-resources investigation into the department’s street-maintenance division.

The rule change left only three of the division’s 21 electricians on the volunteer on-call list for West Seattle that night. None was available, the employee said.

Other electricians who lived farther away had tried to get added as volunteers, according to two employees, but never were called.

So the signal at 35th Avenue Southwest and Fauntleroy Way Southwest — the main entrance and exit to the West Seattle Bridge — became a four-way stop for nearly 11 hours.

When the electrical crew arrived at 7:50 a.m. the next day, it located a disconnected neutral wire and had it fixed in less than three hours.

The department also could have asked Seattle police for help in directing traffic. A transportation-department statement released the morning of the traffic jam said officers typically do not perform traffic control when the signal is flashing.

But a police spokesman said officers are dispatched to intersections with flashing lights for many reasons.

“Generally speaking, we like to have the discretion,” Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said. The department became aware of the broken light at 6:30 a.m. but did not dispatch anyone, he said.

Charles Bookman, director of the traffic-management division, defended the transportation department’s decision to wait until morning, saying it was safer and more economical to fix the signal in daylight.

“We made the decision that we could get to the signal first thing in the morning,” Bookman said. He said the crew chief who was notified of the problem at about 9 p.m. Feb. 7 made the unilateral decision without consulting a higher-up.

Bookman acknowledged the call-in list restricted which electricians could work overtime, but said that did not play a role in handling the problem at the West Seattle intersection.

The city eliminated its night crew last month in an experiment to cut costs, Bookman said. Until four or five years ago, the crew’s main job was to replace burned-out lights in the city’s 1,000-plus traffic signals.

As the city has switched from incandescent bulbs to LED lights with longer service, there was less of that work, he said.

Bookman said the elimination of the night crew is being tested through June. It’s unclear how much the department expects to save because no cost analysis was performed.

The department’s on-call policy was changed last week after the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 77 filed a grievance over it. The department now has agreed to call any of its electricians who volunteer to work after hours.

The incident is notable not only for the tie-up at the West Seattle intersection, but for the rift exposed in a critical division of city government involving the electricians and Jackson, their manager.

Jackson was demoted in 2009 and now is a manager in charge of traffic field operations. He referred all questions about the division to Bookman and the department’s spokesman.

A yearlong investigation of the department in 2008 documented serious issues with Jackson’s management style even before he was promoted to division chief. The division under his leadership later was described by then-Mayor Greg Nickels as “dysfunctional.”

Tensions in the division where he now works have become so bad that 13 electricians submitted a petition to the department’s chief complaining about their workplace, according to employees.

The department responded by setting up meetings with about 50 division staff last week to discuss the issues, sources said.

The electricians, Bookman said, are “valued professional employees” and the department’s senior management wants to hear what they have to say.

Bookman rejected any suggestion that the department, in its initial statement about the need for specialized expertise, misled the public about why the West Seattle light was not fixed immediately.

“If there is no obvious sign of collision-related damage, you can assume it’s an electrical fault or a piece of equipment that needs to be replaced,” Bookman said.

He noted that “any type of electrical sleuthing is sophisticated, complex and requires specialized people to do it efficiently and correctly.”

Asked whether the West Seattle light would have been fixed more quickly had the night crew been on staff, he said, “I don’t believe it would have changed it at all.”

Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508


On Twitter @susankelleher