The West Seattle Bridge is closed until further notice. Mayor Jenny Durkan said the bridge “cannot safely support vehicular traffic at this time” at a press conference called yesterday after the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) detected worsening cracking in girders supporting the 36-year-old bridge, which serves as the primary artery to the West Seattle peninsula–home to more than 80,000 residents.
SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe said the closure could last months to properly diagnose the issue and complete the repair work.
The bridge carries more than 100,000 daily trips under normal circumstances–which are not what we have right now. In fact, at a 5:30pm press conference Governor Jay Inslee issued a stay-at-home order across Washington state to contain the spread of COVID-19. Only essential businesses will be allowed to stay open, and local authorities will be empowered to enforce the order if necessary.
Residents are permitted a daily constitutional walk or run, which the Governor said is necessary to maintain good mental health during the order, which will last at least two weeks. Some epidemiologists have recommended stay-at-home quarantining last months to reverse the momentum COVID-19 has built while America twiddled its thumbs.
The silver lining in the West Seattle Bridge closure news is that vehicular traffic and transit ridership has plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic, which will make detours easier to arrange. Last report was that transit ridership was down nearly 70% on Sound Transit and King County Metro, which have both reduced service and instituted back-door fare-free boarding to help protect bus drivers from viral transmission. Meanwhile, car crashes are down 76%, which suggests automobile traffic has likewise nose-dived.
Transit, freight, and emergency vehicles will use the Spokane Street Bridge (the “low bridge”), but motorists will be rerouted farther south to cross the Duwamish River. The next two bridges to the south are the 1st Ave S drawbridge, which carries SR-509, and the South Park Bridge.
Bus routes like the RapidRide C Line and Route 120 that normally use the high bridge will switch to the low bridge. King County Executive Dow Constantine also announced additional sailings of the West Seattle Water Taxi and a corresponding increase in connecting transit services to the Seacrest Ferry Dock in order to help ferry West Seattleities to Downtown Seattle. This is a similar strategy as employed during the Alaskan Way Viaduct closure, which also greatly impeded West Seattle transportation.
Even after the opening of the new SR-99 tunnel replacing the viaduct, West Seattle transit riders continued to suffer due to a lack of transit priority and an abundance of cars on their routes. Finally after about nine months of tortuously slow and unreliable service, new transit routings helped alleviate things. But, now it could be back into the crucible for West Seattle transit riders.
SDOT’s plan to dedicate Spokane Street Bridge to essential traffic only will help keep transit and freight moving during the closure. Nonetheless reduced schedules and unreliable reroutes could make it tough for essential employees like doctors and nurses get to work by bus.
The fact that a 36-year-old bridge already needs major repairs highlights the fragility of our highway infrastructure. It may also indicate a construction defect. Regardless, designing our system to reduce car dependence may help avoid their debilitating incidents in the future.
The opening of the West Seattle Link light rail extension, slated for 2030, will help on that front, and it will provide another Dumawish crossing should the West Seattle Bridge fail again. Hopefully the light rail bridge lasts a lot longer than 36 years before needing to close for months of repair work.
Correction: Previously this article incorrectly stated the RapidRide C Line uses the low bridge normally.
Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.