Ever since the Denny Party’s schooner anchored at Alki Beach in 1851, people have pondered how they’ll cross the bay to reach the city and state mainland.
They’ve relied on private ferries, wooden trestles over Duwamish River mudflats, and, by 1930, a pair of low-rise steel bridges. When a ship destroyed one drawspan, the city built a six-lane concrete arch in 1984 that seemed too big to fail.
But runaway cracks last month forced an emergency closure of the West Seattle Bridge until at least 2022. Like past generations, today’s 86,000 residents are re-thinking how to get on and off the peninsula.
City leaders don’t have clear answers yet, but once the coronavirus outbreak fades, travelers will return.
“Everything has to be on the table,” said City Councilmember Lisa Herbold of West Seattle.
More transit will be needed, crossing the lower swing bridge, city leaders agree.
Mayor Jenny Durkan suggested new bus routes that go directly to Sound Transit light-rail stations or other transportation hubs.
An obvious endpoint is Sodo Station, where people can catch light rail to downtown or the University of Washington. That trip should benefit from the Lander Street Bridge, to be finished late this year over train tracks in Sodo. Next year light rail will extend to the U District, Roosevelt and Northgate stations.
Herbold said she’ll propose raising more money for buses serving West Seattle in a November citywide ballot measure that would replace an expiring $60 car-tab fee and sales tax for transit.
Metro’s free shuttle buses, currently suspended during the coronavirus shutdown, could be beefed up to carry riders to water taxis and RapidRide bus stops. Besides the shuttle routes to Alaska Junction, Admiral and Alki, advocates suggest a circulator farther south to High Point.
Transit faces a double threat, though. Tax revenue that funds buses and light rail is plummeting because of the shutdown, while social distancing requires more transit capacity to give riders room to spread out.
Durkan this week suggested adding park-and-ride lots to help people access transit.
Current city policy bans most park-and-ride lots, because they take land that might be used for housing, and can increase traffic in nearby neighborhoods. But there’s precedent: In January 2019, with the Alaskan Way Viaduct shutting down, a lot opened along Harbor Avenue Southwest for water-taxi customers.
Herbold said some of her constituents suggest an “inverse park-and-ride” in which West Seattle residents could leave a car on the east side of the bridge, then reach that lot by bus, bike or walking.
The King County Water Taxi has rarely carried more than a fraction of capacity, but demand may grow now without the bridge.
During the January 2019 Highway 99 closure, the county added a second West Seattle vessel, and daily wintertime use quadrupled the first Monday to 1,350 boardings.
More-frequent foot-ferry trips are needed from Vashon Island to downtown, and foot ferries should be considered from Southworth to downtown, or Fauntleroy to downtown, said Martin Westerman, vice chair of the West Seattle Transportation Coalition.
“Could there be an added route to Pier 91, or to the pier in front of Expedia’s new HQ?” wondered West Seattle commuter Sue Winter.
Odds appear slim that car ferries from Vashon and Southworth could divert from Fauntleroy to downtown. Vehicle space at Colman Dock is limited with renovations there continuing until 2023.
And shifting Vashon car ferries to downtown may not be wise, anyway, since many motorists stay in West Seattle or go south to Renton or SeaTac. Only 40% cross the high bridge, a Washington State Ferries survey in 2013 found.
Expanding use of the low bridge
Many hope the city will open the low bridge to general traffic, at least during off-peak hours, saving a five-mile detour. The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) says it might happen, but not now.
Herbold suggested allowing private transit there. Gerry Kingen, owner of Salty’s Restaurant in West Seattle, said his hotel-to-restaurant vans, and other tour buses, ought to have access to the low bridge on weekends.
But Port of Seattle Commission President Peter Steinbrueck said traffic on the low bridge should be discouraged so the road remains available for freight, to protect shipping jobs that are at risk.
Loosen the five-way intersection
The city has few tools to make detours faster, short of banning left turns, blocking cross streets or compromising safety.
SDOT has connected the five-way intersection west of the low bridge to its traffic-control center downtown, so staff can make rapid adjustments to traffic signals when congestion thickens.
Signals will be modified for transit priority, said spokesman Ethan Bergerson.
Congestion there isn’t necessarily driven by low-bridge users. Drivers who detour into West Marginal Way Southwest — the prime route to the First Avenue South bridge, Highway 509 to Burien and Highway 599 to I-5 at Tukwila — are caught in lineups alongside low-bridge trucks and buses. New lane channelizations may be needed.
SDOT earned an early win in late March by installing a signal on Highland Park Way Southwest at Southwest Holden Street. It should not only reduce crashes, but help drivers leaving West Seattle as they turn downhill toward Sodo and Highway 599.
As more people detour, they’ll come across the broken pavement on Southwest Roxbury Street, which Herbold called “a mess.” Road quality is “going to need resources and we haven’t really figured out how we’re getting them,” she said.
SDOT plans to resurface crumbling pavement in the five-way intersection west of the low bridge soon, and is wrapping up its Avalon Way repavement project.
The city has no plan to undo the recently completed road-slimming from two lanes to one at southbound West Marginal Way next to Duwamish Longhouse, which the city calls a safety project.
The First Avenue South bridge is often blocked for marine openings, and by federal code even peak-time traffic halts for large vessels. The low Spokane Street bridge can swing open at busy times for a tall barge, depending on high tides.
“SDOT is also making a formal request to restrict bridge openings during peak commute times, which could take several weeks or months to implement,” the city’s website says.
An obvious solution would be for people working at home during the coronavirus shutdown to continue doing so.
Before the outbreak, 7% of downtown employees in West Seattle ZIP codes teleworked, compared to 5.7% of all downtown commuters.
There could be reduced demand to get downtown in a post-coronavirus environment, said Lora Radford, executive director of the West Seattle Junction Association.
“We could potentially see people just remaining — we call it ‘on the island’ — and telecommuting,” said said. “Nobody can predict.”