The Seattle Department of Transportation announced Thursday it’s allowing more drivers to cross the West Seattle swing bridge rather than burn time and fuel taking detours.
SDOT has heard from patients who travel for cancer treatments or kidney dialysis, nurses working on-call shifts, materials-delivery companies and others who say they face hardships driving the five-mile alternate route, which can add 30 to 45 minutes to cross the Duwamish River via the First Avenue South Bridge.
The high bridge, which closed March 23, 2020, is scheduled to reopen in mid-2022 following repairs to cracked girders.
The low bridge is restricted to transit, freight, first-responders and a limited number of local users such as longshore workers. Others risk a $75 fine, under automated camera enforcement that began in January. SDOT’s new rules would add approximately 450 vehicle trips per day.
The first change, which begins Saturday, will allow three more hours of general traffic on weekend mornings. Instead of being banned at 5 a.m., all drivers can cross before 8 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Weekday general access is still allowed only overnights, from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.
Then during May and June, the city will add permitted users including 190 daily trips for West Seattle businesses; 225 daily trips for health care patients and providers; and 35 trips for government vehicles. Vans, shuttles and carpools with a state-issued ride-share license plate may also seek permits.
Those changes double the number of currently permitted users, which stands at 225 longshore-union trips, 150 maritime-industry trips, 40 government trips and 35 business trips.
Drivers seeking all-day access must sign up with SDOT.
First in line are those driving to medical treatments. They may register starting Friday, and could gain access by early May. Drivers can register at the city’s Spokane Street Swing Bridge website.
Applications will be opened to other user classes sometime in late April. Requests received by May 15 will be processed in time for a June 1 transition, said Meghan Shepard, deputy mobility director.
The temporary permits come with conditions. For instance, retail shops and restaurants would be limited to three license plates approved per business and 10 trips per month per business.
Chances are the number of permits will be reduced when the Port of Seattle opens its expanded Terminal 5 early next year to handle the world’s largest container ships, bringing a huge increase in trucks.
SDOT has limited swing-bridge access to ensure emergency vehicles don’t get stuck in traffic. Mobility director Heather Marx said the city hesitated to loosen the rules until now because T-5 was anticipated to bring new truck traffic this spring. She didn’t want to give permits in January only to revoke them a few weeks later.
But now the giant dock opening is delayed until 2022, so it made sense to let more drivers aboard the bridge.
Since all-day camera enforcement began, traffic declined 38% and there are still “several hundred violators a day,” Shepard said.
The bridge currently carries about 400 vehicles per hour, and SDOT believes more can cross without hitting a capacity limit of 800 — until the T-5 trucks show up.