Cargo containers used to enter and leave Alaska Marine Lines with ease, whether carried by trucks from Tukwila or barged out to sea through the Duwamish Waterway.

Now the maritime trade is being complicated by the closure of the West Seattle Bridge due to runaway cracks in its concrete girders.

Detours have generated heavy traffic where truckers once enjoyed empty lanes on four-lane West Marginal Way Southwest, at the company’s Terminal 115 entrance. Even worse, there’s a risk the vacant bridge two miles downstream might teeter or collapse, blocking the Duwamish passage.

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, Kemper Development Co., Madrona Venture Group, NHL Seattle, PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company and Seattle Children’s hospital. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.

“We’re the lifeline — from food, to building materials, to you name it, we haul everything that keeps a community going,” company president Kevin Anderson said. Alaskan towns from Sitka to Nome, and sometimes as far north as Barrow, rely on barges that leave Seattle three to six times a week.

“Frankly, it hasn’t been a huge deal yet,” because COVID-19 stay-at-home orders are keeping some motorists off the road, said Anderson. “So we’re very concerned it’s going to turn into a complete parking lot. We’ve been trying to prepare for the worst and expect the best. This is going to be really, really bad.”

Alaska Marine Lines is one of many businesses and organizations coping with heavier traffic since the March 23 bridge closure. Others include the Duwamish Tribe longhouse, a city parks warehouse and the Ferguson plumbing supply business.

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Traffic on West Marginal Way Southwest has nearly tripled, from 9,800 to 26,900 daily vehicles. On Highland Park Way Southwest, which leads west up the peninsula, traffic has swelled from 16,680 to 39,370 daily vehicles, bringing constant noise around hilltop apartments and churches.

Where those two main roads meet below, an afternoon fender-bender will snarl the lanes back to Terminal 115, one-third of a mile north. Truckers exiting T-115 sometimes must block two northbound lanes until a gap appears to turn left and head southbound.

“Guys are jumping out of their vehicles and throwing things at trucks. There has been some road rage going on here,” Anderson said.  “I’ve never seen it in my 30 years, people acting like that. So people are really stressed out.”

He might soon change truck trips to early morning or nights, to avoid traffic jams.

Closer to the cracked bridge, West Seattle Recycling’s box truck loses 30 to 60 minutes a day, making two round trips to fetch materials such as book-grade office paper. The worst delays occur returning north onto West Marginal Way, after trips to Tukwila, Federal Way or Kent.

“It will take at least three lights to go through,” said owner Jonathan Howe.

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Residents in the northern areas of West Seattle face a four-mile detour to leave the peninsula, taking the First Avenue South bridge to Sodo.

“We went from having a 10-minute commute to Costco to a 40-minute commute,” former Mayor Greg Nickels said last week, to his counterparts on a new 31-member task force that’s studying traffic and high-bridge replacement options.

The lower swing bridge remains limited to freight, transit and longshore workers, where the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) improved flows through the five-way intersection with lane and signal changes. The city reduced the 40 mph speed limit on West Marginal Way to 30 mph, as a safety project, yet drivers routinely go 40 mph or 5o mph once they make it past the jammed intersections.

City Councilmember Lisa Herbold of West Seattle has asked SDOT to permit broader access to the lower bridge, such as for night shift medical workers.

“In addition to allowing general use of the lower-level bridge at non-peak times, I think during peak times, employer shuttles and van pools as well as school buses and shuttles should be treated as transit, and have access to the lower-level bridge,” she said.

Howe, who commutes from Shoreline, wishes he could buy a pass to legally drive the low bridge. Some drivers say they’d pay a toll to cross without competing with other  traffic.

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City officials have refused to welcome additional user groups for fear they’ll need to kick drivers off when traffic rebounds.

“If too many people use the low bridge, it will soon become useless for everyone,” Heather Marx, SDOT mobility director, told a motorist by e-mail. It can only handle 20,000 daily trips, a fraction of the 100,000 or so cars and trucks that used the high bridge.

And the low bridge might also be closed if the cracked high bridge collapses or becomes so unstable the city declares an evacuation.

United Motor Freight sits within SDOT’s 225-foot “fall zone,” where in the worst-case scenario, the bridge would tilt sideways and fall onto the company’s warehouse. (City consultants predict debris would drop straight down.)

Any given morning, forklift drivers hoist oversized equipment, such as wind-turbine blades and giant generators, onto flatbed trucks under the high bridge. Some travel the last mile across the low bridge to meet export ships on Harbor Island, while others ferry imported goods from Elliott Bay inland, as far as Montana.

The company’s loading yard might be obstructed if the city declares a safety evacuation zone under the cracked bridge, or if SDOT contractors need land there for shoring or future demolition work. United Motor Freight president Jeff Landstrom declined to discuss the situation until city plans are better known.

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The 105-year-old Nucor Steel Mill still enjoys direct truck access to the city’s bus lane from Delridge Way Southwest to the low-bridge entrance, said sales manager Ken Bowden.

“I think they’ve been amenable, so far,” he said of SDOT’s efforts to maintain freight mobility.

Between 70 and 85 truckloads of rebar and bulk steel cross the Duwamish to destinations in Northwest states and western Canada. Nucor is working to protect the route from excessive detour traffic, a low-bridge evacuation closure, or future blockages due to high-bridge demolition and replacement.

“We’re already seeing some of the impacts and have the feeling it’s going to get worse,” Bowden said.

If the low bridge were to become impassable, he said, Nucor might have to ship steel off the peninsula over the nearby BNSF Railway bridge, or dispatch trucks by night on surface roads.

Truck access to the Port of Seattle’s Terminal 18 on Harbor Island slightly improved this spring because of lighter general traffic from I-5 to the industrial island. But port leaders there are watching traffic patterns and any future bridge repair or replace as they plan to reopen Terminal 5 on the West Seattle side next year, supporting global trade and 220 jobs that depend on the low-bridge connection.

Anderson of Alaska Marine Lines said he’s begun researching an emergency Plan B in case debris or construction ever block the waterway. A promising option, he said, would be a cheap deal to operate from the port’s Terminal 46 near the sports stadiums, a comfortable two miles away from West Seattle bridges.