The lack of a manual detailing how to respond to major traffic incidents did not affect how the Seattle Department of Transportation handled Monday’s traffic fiasco, the agency said, because policies that would be in the manual are already in place.
The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) would not have handled Monday’s propane-truck crash and the ensuing traffic fiasco any differently if it had completed a written policy manual for dealing with major traffic incidents, the agency said Wednesday.
Mayor Ed Murray announced in 2015 that the city was working on such a manual, one of the key recommendations of a report the city commissioned on how to better respond to traffic disruptions, like the truck that shut down Interstate 5 for eight hours Monday.
And while that manual remains unfinished 19 months later, SDOT officials said the policies and procedures that will be outlined in the document are already in place.
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, Sabey, Seattle Children’s hospital and Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.
“The way we approached Monday is exactly the way we would have approached it had things been written in a manual,” said Mark Bandy, director of SDOT’s transportation operations division.
Most Read Local Stories
- Driver arrested after video shows Jeep plowing into Seattle snowball fight, police say
- Bellevue homeowner recounts 'nightmare' after house slides down hill with wife and dog inside
- What to know about the new website to order free COVID tests
- Coronavirus daily news updates, January 18: What to know today about COVID-19 in the Seattle area, Washington state and the world
- Most of Seattle area's 200,000 unvaccinated adults say they will 'definitely not' get COVID shots
“We have five-, six-dozen two- to three-page procedural things about how we do particular tasks,” he said. “Think of it like we have chapters and we just haven’t bound it, and that is on our to-do list for this year, over the next couple of months.”
SDOT’s staff, Bandy said, has been trained in those protocols and procedures. The value in compiling that information into a single document is to make sure the policies and procedures are carried out as the agency moves forward and the staff changes. Such a document, Bandy said, is not set in stone, as each crash presents its own challenges.
“You have some static things in terms of procedures,” he said. “But then you do things and you try things in incidents based on the uniqueness that occurs.”
The city has $1.9 million in its budget to improve its response to major traffic incidents — money that goes toward staffing, training and creating a traffic-management system to consolidate information and make it available to planners and drivers.
SDOT has monthly meetings with other agencies to discuss coordination and review incidents like what happened Monday, Bandy said.
Monday’s crash and the resulting traffic mess were different, and more difficult to resolve, than the 2015 fish-truck crash that shut down Highway 99 for nine hours and spurred the city to hire consultants who recommended changing Seattle’s response procedures, including development of the manual.
Propane, obviously, is a bigger safety threat than frozen fish. The city has oversight over Highway 99, while the state controls Interstate 5. And I-5 carries much more traffic — more than 250,000 vehicles daily use the freeway just north of the crash site, according to state data — than the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which averages about 70,000 vehicles a day.
SDOT changed the timing on traffic signals throughout the city Monday, trying to ameliorate congestion. And one lane of South Dearborn Street, near the site of the crash, was designated as transit only, to try to ease the backup of buses going to and from Interstate 90. Buses throughout the region were stuck in gridlock, with hundreds reporting delays of more than 90 minutes.
Bandy said the city sent police officers to some of the major intersections closest to the crash — although he wasn’t sure how many — to try to keep cars from blocking cross streets and keep traffic moving. But with an artery the size of I-5 shut down for much of the day, there was no way to have officers everywhere.
“Every intersection in a five-mile radius was impacted,” he said, “so there’s clearly not enough resources to get to all those.”