The lack of a barrier separating oncoming traffic on the Aurora Bridge is being pointed out in the multiple lawsuits stemming from the 2015 Ride the Ducks crash that killed five people and injured 71 others.
A center barrier could be installed within a few months to prevent crossover crashes on the Aurora Bridge, if the city of Seattle and the state of Washington ever choose to do so.
Such a divider might offer a safer or less-stressful trip for the 70,000 drivers and 28,000 bus riders a day who zip across the bridge, whose speed limit is 40 mph, in lanes separated by only a double yellow line.
Installing a permanent concrete barrier would reduce the span’s six lanes to a five- or four-lane passage. For a few million dollars more, agencies could buy a movable Road Zipper barrier and lift truck, so crews could alter the lane patterns to match traffic demand, as is done on the Golden Gate Bridge.
“The barrier could be ready in five months, and the machines anywhere from six to eight months,” said Chris Sanders, senior vice president for the Lindsay Transportation Solutions barrier division in Rio Vista, California, which has supplied 26 corridors worldwide with dividers that are moved daily.
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Nearly three years have passed since the Ride the Ducks crash that killed five people there and injured 71 others. An axle broke on a military-style amphibious tourist vehicle, which careened into an oncoming bus full of North Seattle College students on Sept. 24, 2015.
Victims’ lawsuits name the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) as partly at fault, because they did not provide a barrier or other means to prevent a crossover collision.
Travelers were reminded of the dangers June 1 when a five-car collision injured three people and blocked afternoon commuters. Two cars wound up across the centerline — including a southbound car sideswiped by a northbound vehicle, a police diagram shows.
“They need to stop thinking about it, and take action,” said frequent bridge motorist Gail Yates, of Queen Anne, who avoids the interior lanes.
Since 2003, police have reported 171 bridge collisions, including 74 that injured 190 people, as of this May. Of these, oncoming vehicles collided or crossed the centerline in 15 injury wrecks and 11 noninjury crashes.
The five people killed in the Ride the Ducks crash were the only fatalities in that time period, though others occurred in earlier years.
Both agencies say the bridge is “reasonably safe” because its crash rates are lower than other segments of Aurora and major Seattle arterials.
The day of the Ducks crash, then-SDOT director Scott Kubly said bridge safety “is definitely something we’re going to be taking a good, hard look at in the coming days and weeks.”
But his department never published a report, and takes an official position that barriers aren’t needed.
In an unfinished draft version, dated December 2015 and released Monday by the City Attorney’s office, SDOT engineers say a movable “zipper” would create fewer problems than other options.
State lawmakers formally requested a review in 2015, and then-WSDOT Director Lynn Peterson agreed: “Obviously, we’re at the point where we need to look at the bridge.”
Instead, the state and city are pointing fingers over which agency is responsible for any barrier in the multimillion-dollar litigation by Ducks victims.
King County Superior Court Judge Catherine Shaffer refused to let the city off the hook in a preliminary ruling last month.
“The City has a legal duty to make sure that Aurora Avenue across the Aurora Bridge is reasonably safe for ordinary travel, and that duty includes an obligation to install a center median barrier when one is required and necessary,” her order says.
A handwritten note adds, “This ruling does not indicate the state is free from a similar duty.” The question of whether a barrier is “required and necessary” could be decided by a jury.
No easy squeeze
Concrete median barriers separate cars throughout the state — including for a mile on either side of the Aurora Bridge. But the bridge’s narrow deck limits the chance for even a basic 2-foot-wide barrier, to be crammed among six lanes that average only 9½ feet wide. The geometry hasn’t changed much since the bridge opened in 1933, though traffic has increased more than sixfold.
“They can’t simply place a conventional barrier in the middle,” said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center in Seattle. “They can’t narrow the existing lanes, and they are highly reluctant to take away a lane. So the obvious solutions are difficult.”
A permanent barrier might be compatible with two lanes each direction, risking more congestion to prevent crossover crashes. But drivers would lose their space to merge safely. And there might be more rear-end crashes at Queen Anne or Wallingford when exiting traffic slows or stops on the bridge.
To keep three lanes each direction, plus a new barrier, would require moving the walkways under the bridge deck for $29 million, said a state study in 2003. SDOT currently thinks the true costs would exceed $100 million, the unfinished 2015 report says.
A better layout would provide three lanes southbound, a barrier, and two lanes northbound, says a research paper this spring by Trevor Daviscourt, who just earned his master’s in civil engineering at the University of Washington.
Based on national standards, traffic could move 25 percent faster with fewer sideswipes, because the lanes could be 11 to 12 feet wide, he argues.
“I don’t see why they would hesitate to re-stripe the lanes and put up concrete barrier,” he said. Daviscourt estimates barrier costs would be around $1 million, while the city thinks they’d be $2 million to $4 million.
One drawback is making a tough northbound merge even more treacherous, where cars from Dexter Avenue North and Canlis restaurant mix with Metro buses just before the bridge deck.
Sidewalk removal could create space for six lanes and a barrier, but the city refuses to block pedestrian access. Nowadays, new bridges for Highway 520 and Lander Street are designed to provide 14-foot walk-bike lanes.
What if Aurora Bridge could be tricked out with a movable barrier?
San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge authority installed its steel, concrete-filled Road Zipper barrier for $14 million in January 2015 — to replace yellow plastic pylons. Before that, 16 people died and there had been more than 100 crossover collisions since 1970.
“Today, we’re going to stop saying ‘What if?’ on how to save lives, and we’re going to do it,” U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, said in a grand-opening speech. “This barrier is really about public health, and the threat that is caused by traffic coming in either direction. We have an obligation to eliminate it.”
A giant yellow vehicle lifts the 1,550-pound, 12-inch-wide barrier segments — with T-shaped tops for easy grasping — and conveys them rearward, to deposit each segment a lane-width away. Four of the Golden Gate’s six lanes point in the peak direction.
For the Aurora Bridge, a movable barrier could allow three full-sized southbound lanes and two northbound weekday mornings, reversing in afternoons.
The half-mile span requires 900 one-meter segments, at total cost of $2 million to $3 million. A machine might cost $2 million, or rent for $40,000 per month, Sanders said.
British Columbia just spent $20 million for two miles of barrier and two lifting trucks, and the system will be installed in 2019 on the Alex Fraser Bridge south of Burnaby.
The Honolulu area has used a reversible barrier since 1998 on the H-1 freeway near Pearl Harbor.
“You’re maintaining your peak lanes, you’re keeping the same capacity, you’re just making it safer,” said Sanders. “You have to do the traffic calculations. If there’s no impact to the reverse commute, it’s sort of a no-brainer.”
A structural engineering study would be needed to confirm the steel-truss Aurora Bridge can handle more weight, he said. The city believes that wouldn’t be a problem.
The state argued this month in court that any median barriers are “traffic control devices” under the jurisdiction of SDOT, based on a 1957 law that describes the operating role of cities that host state highways.
“Currently, WSDOT agrees with the City that Aurora Avenue as it crosses the Aurora Bridge is reasonably safe for ordinary travel,” Mark Leth, WSDOT assistant regional administrator, wrote in a court declaration.
He wrote that in 400 million bridge trips in a 14-year period the state examined, there were only 65 injury crashes and 159 total crashes.
The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the Ducks crash on the broken axle. Its report says 9 ½-foot lanes are acceptable with a 40 mph limit. Ride the Ducks agreed to move its vehicles to the slower Fremont Bridge, and a new city ordinance requires a narrator on board so tour drivers focus on the road.
The unfinished SDOT report favors automated, camera-based enforcement to reduce overall speeds on the bridge, frequently 50 mph for interior lanes. Engineers suggest Seattle ask the state Legislature for approval.
Kubly told the City Council in October 2015 that despite “one horrific event,” the bridge “is not a particularly dangerous stretch of street.”
Bridge collisions are a small fraction of the 5,215 total crashes and 29 deaths on 7½ miles of Aurora in Seattle since 2003.
On the other hand, transportation leaders have repeatedly told the state’s 7 million citizens “reasonably safe” isn’t good enough.
“If they think they’re going to reach Vision Zero [end to traffic fatalities] without changes on the Aurora Bridge,” said Daviscourt, “I don’t know what they’re thinking.”
WSDOT itself is among about 300 owners of concrete barriers and lifting machines from Lindsay, to protect workers and drivers in construction zones, Sanders said.
Seattle successfully squeezed steel safety barriers into the old Spokane Street Viaduct from 2000 to 2012, a lifesaving response to a dozen head-on fatalities in the ’90s.