The city program is modeled on the state's familiar Incident Response Teams, which tackle some 60,000 blocking incidents a year in an average 12 minutes.

Share story

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has created a five-truck rapid-response team to clear debris and stalled cars, as a small step to keep people moving when the Alaskan Way Viaduct closes in January.

The city effort is modeled on the state’s familiar Incident Response Teams, which tackle some 60,000 blocking incidents a year in an average 12 minutes. Seattle is one of the first U.S. cities to create its own fleet, said Rodney Maxie, SDOT deputy director for maintenance. Operating costs are estimated at $1 million a year. 

Mayor Jenny Durkan announced the program Wednesday at Lake Union Park, near Mercer Street, along with other proposals and advice to cope with the so-called “period of maximum constraint” that goes into overdrive early next year.

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, CenturyLink, Kemper Development Co., 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.

Learn more about Traffic Lab » | Follow us on Twitter »

These include crackdowns on “blocking the box” at intersections, and enforcement against motorists who veer toward bicyclists to intimidate them, she said. However, Durkan didn’t call for more spending to increase the police traffic unit’s manpower, currently about 50 officers.

Data analysis will be used to deploy officers more effectively, she promised. Durkan also said Seattle will ask the state Legislature for authorization to use enforcement cameras to catch drivers using bus lanes, or blocking intersections. Current law allows red-light enforcement cameras; or speed cameras only at school zones and railroad crossings.

In addition to the Jan. 11 viaduct closure and demolition, a convention-center expansion, KeyArena rebuild for NHL hockey, and towers under construction will block streets. The Highway 99 tunnel opens in February to replace the viaduct, but lacks mid-downtown and Belltown exits, forcing drivers from the northwest and buses from the southwest onto surface routes.

SDOT’s rapid-response team trucks are equipped with sirens, red lights, chain saws for downed trees, extra gasoline and wheel jacks that allow a single worker to move a stalled car. Truck-mounted electronic-message signs will direct traffic and perhaps avoid the need for a police officer to stand in a road lane waving drivers along.

The city intends to provide 24-hour service, and during commute hours they will divide the territory, to station a truck at both the Aurora Avenue North and the West Seattle Bridge areas, said spokeswoman Dawn Schellenberg.

Teams will set out pink detour signs — a new traffic color to stand out amid Seattle’s panoply of orange construction signs.

“The pink is to differentiate between the normal construction you see — as you can see from the amount of construction we have, you might get desensitized to slowing down in a construction zone,” Maxie said. “So the purpose of the pink is so when you see that, you know there’s potentially a major incident occurring that will cause traffic, all modes of traffic, to slow down.”

Image from the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Devices.
Image from the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Devices.

Patricia Westsik, incident-response supervisor, said she brought the pink-sign concept from her previous work in the Phoenix area. Pink is authorized for temporary emergency use by the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which regulates U.S. streets.

SDOT has dealt with 4,000 incidents so far this year, officials said.

Traffic response has inspired cafe chatter here since the “fish-truck” incident of March 24, 2015, when the city took nine hours to clear a toppled semi carrying boxes of frozen whitefish from southbound Highway 99. Mayor Ed Murray and ex-SDOT director Scott Kubly initially defended the response, but later the city changed policies to prioritize traffic flow over protecting property.

Commuters got another taste of constraint Monday morning, when a three-hour gas leak in Pioneer Square blocked First Avenue drivers and caused other streets to overload, which in turn obstructed buses arriving from the Alaskan Way Viaduct at Seneca Street.

The city’s rapid-response teams were months in the making. To prepare, the city modified two road-maintenance trucks and ordered three customized Ford F-350 pickups, using its fleet-replacement fund, Maxie said. Ten workers completed state Department of Transportation and State Patrol training, he said.

The trucks can be a community asset to aid with detours around parades, sporting events and political demonstrations, said Fire Chief Harold Scoggins.

To be sure, response teams won’t solve congestion. Durkan herself said traffic will be worse in 2019 and 2020, but promised, “Seattle will remain open for business.”

The mayor implored people to arrange to work from home, not only for car commuters, but also for bus commuters to relieve crowding on King County Metro routes. More light-rail trains and waterfront bus lanes aren’t scheduled until at least 2020.

Durkan said Ride2 shuttle vans, which Metro launched this week to carry riders to and from the Eastgate Park & Ride in Bellevue, will arrive in coming months at West Seattle and South Seattle. Upcoming agreements for dockless rental bikes will require more at light-rail stations, she said. More passenger drop-off zones will be marked in the city core, to reduce blockage by ride-hailing cars, she said.

Drivers in noninjury crashes will be constantly reminded to steer off the roadway when possible.

“The Seattle Police does not want you to preserve a minor fender-bender scene,” police Assistant Chief Steve Hirjak said.