Here’s the problem. Sitting through a presentation about the Ballard Interbay Regional Transportation (BIRT) Study, one finds themselves cheering for terrible options. 

The issues are implacably difficult and balancing interests is complex beyond imagining. Interbay has a dozen bridges that are not earthquake or climate change ready sitting at the intersection of rail and water. Three very powerful and wealthy communities overlook the neighborhood. Every level of government has a finger in the pie, often crossing political boundaries. Cutting-edge industries share space with the legacy companies that built this city. Everything must keep moving at the same time all of it needs replacement and upgrading.

Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and their consultants at Nelson Nygaard have culled a list of transportation improvements from two decades of Interbay planning studies. The projects range from painted pavement to half-billion dollar bridges. Together, these options are being wound into blueprints for the next two decades of development. 

And we are still left asking “is this it?” 

Yeah, That’s It.

On Wednesday over Zoom, the BIRT project team presented a handful of slides about potential projects in four categories: Pedestrian, Bicycle, Transit and Freight, and Corridor-Wide. Under each category, there was a breakdown of examples, like the Emerson Street Pedestrian Bridge and Freight and Transit Lanes between Denny and Market.

Assessing multimodal network needs includes a heat maps for issues for pedestrian access, bicycling, driving and freight, and transit. (SDOT)

The Multimodal Needs Report has a more thorough breakdown of the proposed projects. (Nowhere are the projects combined into a single table.) Pedestrian projects focus on access around the new light rail stations, trail connections, shared use paths along the bridges, and sidewalk improvements throughout the area. These are echoed in the bike improvements with the additions of completing neighborhood connections and the Missing Link of the Burke-Gilman Trail in Ballard.

The report punts on the transit network connections. There are the future light rail stations as a backbone, with a handful of bus-only lanes supporting them. Busses ride on the same routes as cars and trucks, so the attention goes to roads.

And that puts the most money and effort on the freight and automobile improvements. This is where the two bridges come up. The study includes two of three scenarios for the Ballard Bridge: the low span that simply replaces the bridge at its existing height; and a mid-height span that is still a drawbridge but needs fewer openings. The mid-height bridge lands further north in Ballard and requires extra off-ramps. Off the table for this analysis is a high fixed bridge.

Of interest to most respondents on the call and source of the most questions and comments, the Draft Plan considers two options for the Magnolia Bridge replacement. There is the $400 million 1:1 replacement of the bridge in its existing location. The second scenario is a less extravagant Armory Way bridge that likely would serve people walking, rolling, biking and riding transit better. The scenarios will not examine the Dravus-Only or Low Bridge options from the Magnolia Bridge report. 

Other transportation projects include intersection turning radius changes at some locations, joint bus and freight lanes, and access improvements between the Ballard Bridge and Leary, Emerson, and Nickerson. 

Next steps for BIRT include testing these proposed projects against four project goals: 

  1. Improve mobility for people and freight
  2. Provide a system that safely accommodates all travelers
  3. Advance projects that meet the needs of communities of color and those of all incomes, abilities, and ages
  4. Support timely and coordinated implementation
The four project goals are listed with little icons.
Thomas Brennan of Nelson Nygaard presents the BIRT project goals during Wednesday’s socially distant meeting. (Screen cap via Zoom)

It’s here where the fine print starts screaming. Under “timely and coordinated implementation” is “maintain the current and future capacities of the Ballard and Magnolia Bridge replacement alternatives.” The only appendix for the report is the discredited intersection Level of Service analysis that supports automobile dependence. All this bike and pedestrian stuff, and this is a report about cars.

When we start seeing that weird tailoring of the question, we also start to see glaring omissions. Many of the feeder reports dealt with land use, which is one of the most important determinants of traffic generation. But nothing in this report does. The report omits mention of baseline plans like the 1998 Ballard Interbay Northend Manufacturing Industrial Centers (BINMIC). When asked, the consultants said that was outside of their timeframe of 2000-2019. However, the BINMIC zombie plan is on every map in the report and referenced in each of the documents that the team reviewed. The freight and corridor-wide projects rehash many of the BINMIC’s incomplete transportation improvements.

Most egregiously, nowhere does the report mention improvements to the two most important pieces of transportation infrastructure in the study area: the Ship Canal and the BNSF heavy rail lines. The study area cuts off at Expedia, just north of the Terminal 86 grain silos. More grain moves from rail to ships through those silos than the Port of Seattle moves fish, vegetables, and fruit combined. The value of those exports rivals the value of Boeing’s exports.

But when the study discusses “freight,” they just mean carbon spewing truck traffic that has to widen roads through the rest of the city to get to an interstate. More climate-friendly freight rail is barely considered.

Freight trains moving into the BINMIC area. Unbeknownst to anyone reading the draft report, rail freight is a vital part of the economy of the area. (Photo by Ray Dubicki)
Freight trains moving into the BINMIC area. Unbeknownst to anyone reading the draft report, rail freight is a vital part of the economy of the area. (Photo by Ray Dubicki)

Those Sweet Federal Dollars

And that’s how we find ourselves cheering for terrible projects. The goal here is to get enough projects together that we can meet a threshold. As Councilmember Dan Strauss mentioned when he joined the second half of the call, “When we package these projects together, it allows us to meet the criteria for federal funding. We can be ready for the next state funding package.”

Really, the idea of building a bridge from Armory Way to Magnolia is expensive and demonstrably awful. But it is vastly better than overspending on a replacement traffic flyover for a minor arterial that only serves 13,000 cars a day. And having it ready for federal dollars means slightly less overspending locally.

Replacing the Ballard Bridge with the exact same is also terrible. A few feet higher, and the bridge could accommodate most boats and reduce a ton of openings. But since we are accepting earlier plans that set the location of the Emerson-Nickerson interchange in stone, the north end of a higher bridge causes all sorts of problems going further north into Ballard. Thus hooray low bridge. Put it on the list, even with the Gordian knot at the south end. We might get the feds to pop for a walkway overtop. 

The spaghetti intersection proposed for the south end of Ballard Bridge, Nickerson St., and Emerson St. in all bridge alternatives. Constraining plans to existing studies locks in terrible proposals like this. (SDOT)
The spaghetti intersection proposed for the south end of Ballard Bridge, Nickerson St., and Emerson St. in all bridge alternatives. Constraining plans to existing studies locks in terrible proposals like this. (SDOT)

If that sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is. Pushing ahead with a bunch of bad projects is still a bunch of bad projects.

And that is even before we get to the deeper equity issues of relying on old plans. No zoning boundary in this city was set magically. Interbay has been industrial for many years. It’s even shown in white (non-housing) in the 1930 HOLC Maps that codified redlining in Seattle. While there did not seem to be anyone on the Zoom meeting actively chanting for the return of redlining, we have never dealt honestly with its effects on our city. That includes the extensive protection of single-family housing in neighborhoods like Magnolia and Queen Anne at the expense of neighborhoods like Interbay.

There is not a single switch that will fix Interbay, even if that switch turns on federal money. At the moment, we are not even asking the question of what we are fixing. Is it traffic? Or infrastructure? Or a hundred year old legacy that we just really don’t know what to do with?

The Ballard Interbay Regional Transportation study will have a second online meeting on Thursday, August 6 at 6:30pm. Sign up here. Voice your opinion in a survey on the proposed priorities. Send an email with questions to let them know you expect better than cursory highway widening.

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Ray Dubicki is a stay-at-home dad and parent-on-call for taking care of general school and neighborhood tasks around Ballard. This lets him see how urbanism works (or doesn’t) during the hours most people are locked in their office. He is an attorney and urbanist by training, with soup-to-nuts planning experience from code enforcement to university development to writing zoning ordinances. He enjoys using PowerPoint, but only because it’s no longer a weekly obligation.

12 COMMENTS

  1. “Really, the idea of building a bridge from Armory Way to Magnolia is expensive and demonstrably awful.”

    I’m not so sure. Of the various bridge projects, it is only $1 million more than the cheapest alternative, which is making Dravus bigger. (Or 2 million if you add in the improvement to 20th). It is the other work that adds up:

    Dravus Street Bridge — 45 million
    Armory Way Bridge — 44 million
    Magnolia Bridge Spur — 43 million
    Lower Magnolia Bridge — 67 million
    West Uplands Perimeter Road — 13 million
    Thorndyke Improvements — 13 million
    20th Ave. Improvement — 1 million

    Most of that is unnecessary. You can get to the Pier 91 and Marina Place via the West Galer Street Overpass (the giant ‘S’ bridge which will allows drivers to gain access to the new Expedia building). There is no reason to build a tiny version of the Magnolia Bridge, when you can get there via that other bridge. It may take longer, but them’s the breaks. There just aren’t that many people (or trucks or anything else) going to those areas. Does anyone really think we should spend over $40 million so that access to Seattle Yacht Club is just a tiny bit easier?

    It isn’t clear to me at all what it means to “improve the Dravus Street Bridge”. Is that an additional two lanes of traffic each direction, along with bike lanes and pedestrian improvements? Or is it just one lane each direction.

    Either way, we want a bus lane on the existing Dravus Street Bridge. That is where all the buses will go, once Link gets here (or whenever the old Magnolia Bridge is torn down — whichever comes first). That means one general purpose lane each direction over Dravus. Bike travel largely ignores Dravus, and when riders do have to travel it, taking a lane is quite reasonable.

    Thus an Armory Way Bridge would move traffic away from Dravus. The folks from the Village, as well as West Magnolia would use the Armory Street Bridge, like so: https://goo.gl/maps/DigFteXvrHCLm942A. Likewise, if Dravus is congested, there is no reason why drivers from the north won’t just drive a little bit south, especially since that is where most are headed: https://goo.gl/maps/xL7T98jfDXvNKvuz5.

    My main worry is that they would add one lane each direction to the Dravus Street Bridge, and buses would get stuck in traffic. I don’t think that would happen with a new Armory Street Bridge. I think that would be two lanes each way, which means that you can easily assign one of the Dravus Street Bridge lanes to the buses. I think six lanes is just the right amount of general purpose traffic for Magnolia. Four and you are going to have a problem during rush hour, while eight is overkill. I think the easiest way to accomplish that (politically) is to build a new bridge.

  2. “Replacing the Ballard Bridge with the exact same is also terrible. A few feet higher, and the bridge could accommodate most boats and reduce a ton of openings.”

    Yeah, but by the time this is built, it wouldn’t benefit transit (since once Link gets to Ballard, no buses cross over the bridge). It would also make biking more difficult. Thus you would spend a fortune rebuilding the Emerson-Nickerson interchange for what? So that cars don’t get delayed? That seems like it would lead to induced car trips right after we build what is likely to be a flawed light rail line (with a station on the outskirts of Ballard, not in the heart of it).

    To be clear, if this was part of a grand transportation system, I would be all for it. Start with a new bus tunnel, as a down payment for future rail. That would mean West Seattle buses go from West Seattle to Queen Anne without encountering regular traffic or a single stop light. Convert the the peak-direction bus lanes on 15th/Elliot to 24 hour bus lanes. Add a bus stop underneath Dravus (so that buses don’t have to exit the expressway). Then rebuild the bridge higher, so that it doesn’t have to open as often. At the very least, the bridge would be built with bus lanes approaching the opening (as they will be for the Montlake Bridge). That eliminates the biggest delay — the one caused by backups in front of the bridge, not the actual wait for the bridge to open. Openings would be rare, and when they occur, the buses would get right to the front of the line.

    Transit would be much better. Automobile traffic would be much better. Biking would be much better, although not as good as if they rebuilt the existing Ballard Bridge. Sorry bikers, you take the hit here, for better transit (just as transit riders are taking the hit on Eastlake, for better bike paths). It isn’t a huge hit — just an incline you have to deal with (which is much better than the deadly pathway you have to deal with right now).

    Overall, it would be much better. I just don’t think anyone in power has that kind of vision. It certainly doesn’t exist in West Seattle, why would it exist in Ballard?

  3. I’m sure many readers are aware of this, but the narrow section of the Elliott Bay Trail is not owned by SDOT, it is between the Port of Seattle and BNSF.

    A bridge at 14th was not the default location, but it is a very feasible option- in fact, that’s where the original Ballard bridge was located.

  4. All these multi-billion dollar car projects, and they can’t even find the money widen the trail by moving the fence over a few feet (see picture, above)? Really?

  5. Thanks Ray. I really mean that. This is first class reporting on an issue that deserves more attention. With all due respect, you rarely get that with blogs; the Seattle Times will typically cover an important issue, while the blogs get into the various arguments.

    I haven’t read all of what you’ve wrote — I will do so later — but I did start skimming the SDOT report. I was shocked to read that they consider a station at 14th to be the default location for the “Ballard” light rail station. It isn’t even Ballard! It is West Woodland. I understand that it is expensive to build a tunnel to 20th (closer to the heart of Ballard) but the default alignment — the project rendering that people voted on — was for a station at 15th. I give credit for the authors of the study for showing why 14th is such a terrible choice. Much of the land within walking distance is industrial (shown on the maps in yellow). But it is crazy if the Seattle Department of Transportation now prefers a station at 14th, well outside of what most people would consider Ballard, and well outside the center of population density in the area.

    I’ll have more comments later, but I had to get that off my chest before going further. If the first chapter of a report contains a horrible assumption, forgive me if I find it tough to go any further.

    • Ballard does not begin at 15th. *Downtown* Ballard might start there, but plenty of people east of 15th will tell you they live in Ballard.

      • Right. Yeah, OK, then you might as well build it in Blue Ridge, since that is also considered Ballard by many.

        The point is, a station at 14th is in West Woodland. Some would say that West Woodland is just a part of Ballard (like Blue Ridge). Whatever. My point is that the Ballard station should be in the main part of Ballard even if it can’t be in the heart of Ballard. http://clerk.ci.seattle.wa.us/~public/nmaps/html/NN-1170S.htm

    • It’s the default because that is the representative project from the voter approved plan (ST3). SDOT doesn’t get to pick the ‘default,’ they are reacting to the starting point in ST’s EIS process. SDOT might have its own preferred alignment, but from a process standpoint they shouldn’t have a different default position than ST until after going through the alternatives analysis.

      Bureaucratic inertia is a real thing, but otherwise I don’t read this as a value judgement by SDOT.

      • What? You are wrong — completely wrong. The default is 15th! It is the representative project. Here is a page which lists all of the representative projects: http://soundtransit3.org/map#map. Now select the one for Ballard — https://st32.blob.core.windows.net/media/Default/InteractiveMap/Templates/July1/LRT_BallardtoDowntownSeattle.pdf. On there, it is made very clear:

        “This project would build light rail from Downtown Seattle to Ballard’s Market Street area. It would include elevated light rail on 15th Avenue NW and Elliott Avenue West and a rail-only movable bridge over Salmon Bay.”

        That is the representative project. That is what people voted for: 15th.

        • I’m sorry, you are correct. Then yes, it is odd that SDOT is assuming 14th is their preferred options before anyone gets through an alternatives analysis.

          • Cool. Sorry for jumping on your statement. I’m more concerned that the city will try to convince the public that we voted for 14th from the beginning. (Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.)

          • All good – I had in my head 14th was the representative alignment, so good reminder that it is not. And that Eurasia is the real enemy.

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