Residents of Seattle’s Montlake neighborhood complain that the city’s plan for a big driver-information sign will only encourage side-street traffic.

Share story

In its fervor to use technology to give drivers better information, the Seattle Department of Transportation has stirred a hornet’s nest in the Montlake neighborhood.

Residents are annoyed by the city’s plan to erect an overhead, real-time traffic message sign at 24th Avenue East and East Lee Street, where northbound traffic flows downhill toward Highway 520 and the University of Washington.

For only the second time, the city would be putting one of these steel-supported structures next to single-family homes. Residents say it’s symptomatic of a failure to cope with regional traffic.

The site was announced in a December blog post by the city, along with six more signs in Sodo, downtown and Interbay, between this fall and March of next year. The Montlake sign, 11 feet 8 inches wide by 4 feet 7 inches high, is estimated to cost $400,000.

SDOT already operates 24 of these signs to inform drivers about travel times, crashes or future closures.

They tend to be in commercial zones, such as Northeast 45th Street near University Village. A sign exists in a residential zone over Southwest Admiral Way, but it’s next to a green hillside, while all the houses are far across the street.

This month, the Montlake Community Club voted to spend $500 printing flyers opposing the sign on 24th.

Besides an aesthetic imposition, the club fears that whenever bad news appears — “NE PACIFIC ST, 35 MIN,” for instance — some of the 21,000 daily motorists will turn left and hightail it down Boyer Avenue East, to the University Bridge. Boyer is an arterial, but also a relatively quiet corridor for bicycles, passing a children’s clinic and St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church.

“That’s our whole issue. Once you get here, there’s no place to go, except turning to the side streets,” said Tracy Domingues, who lives two houses from the proposed sign location.

City transportation Director Scott Kubly said in an email exchange, “SDOT believes these fears are largely unwarranted, as the information conveyed … is at least as likely to keep travelers on 24th Ave. E as the lack of any information about the cause of congestion.”

Maybe, maybe not.

On Admiral Way, downhill drivers commonly make U-turns or exit right onto Southwest Avalon Way if the sign shows delays approaching the West Seattle Bridge. But that sometimes happened before the signs.

In another email, Kubly contradicted his first argument by saying the proposed site gives motorists a few blocks’ warning to detour onto Boyer.

“We need to provide people some choices to opt out,” he said in a phone interview, adding that some drivers already divert to Boyer.

“Boyer, which is a minor arterial, provides the only direct connection to the University Bridge,” he said. Message signs might prompt drivers to shop at a grocery store farther south, commute later in the day, or walk the dog near home rather than travel north to Magnuson Park, he said.

Kubly’s comments reflect not only Seattle process, but the lack of good travel options citywide.

“It’s people’s front door, but it’s also serving the entire city,” Kubly said.

Kubly told Montlake residents that a sign already exists near homes on North 105th Street near Dayton Avenue North. That site is two blocks from the big 105th/Greenwood/Holman Road junction.

Domingues said she’s gone door to door collecting 170 signatures for a petition against the sign. In winter after leaves fall, she said, the steel back of the sign will be visible from her front yard.

In addition to a print petition, a new online petition has garnered 69 signatures.

Neighbor Caryn Sengupta said amber message lights might be constantly visible from northwest-facing windows, and a patio where her family eats summer dinners.

She worries that if motorists are looking up at the sign, they won’t be scanning for pedestrians at street level. That includes herself, when crossing four-lane 24th Avenue to start her bicycle commute downtown.

Community-club members wish it were farther south, near the Central Area, to guide drivers to major streets upstream. They also accuse the city of providing minimal notice to homeowners.

The city says 24th and Lee needed to be north-enough to serve the majority of drivers heading downstream toward 520. Also, the sign needed to be built away from traffic lights, and above trolley bus wires.

Intelligent traffic systems are a longtime priority and are generally popular with travelers. SDOT budgeted $5 million this year for cameras, software, electronic signs, web updates and upgrading the control center on the 37th floor of the Seattle Municipal Tower.

The other six new message boards are coming to:

  • Northbound First Avenue South just north of Safeco Field;
  • Northbound Fourth Avenue South near CenturyLink Field;
  • Southbound Elliott Avenue West at West Harrison Street;
  • Southbound Elliott Avenue West, near the Amgen helix pedestrian bridge;
  • Southbound Fifth Avenue, just past Lenora Street, shortly before the Westin Hotel.
  • Northbound Rainier Avenue South at South College Street, just north of Lowe’s.