The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has announced that it will hold off on constructing an on-street bike connection from the West Seattle Bridge Trail to the Duwamish River Trail on West Marginal Way SW until after the West Seattle High bridge reopens to vehicle traffic next year.
The connection was originally planned to be included in a slate of improvements that would improve conditions for all road users along West Marginal Way, including the completion of the missing sidewalk directly north of the Duwamish Tribe’s Longhouse, which has already been installed with asphalt (to be upgraded to concrete next year) and the installation of a pedestrian signal and crosswalk across West Marginal close to the Longhouse, which is set to be constructed starting in August or September.
SDOT made the public announcement at the July meeting of the West Seattle Bridge Community Taskforce shortly after SDOT Director Sam Zimbabwe broke the news to the group of people who had been involved in continued discussions about the facility, including members of the Freight Advisory Board, which has opposed the project.
“Since the closure of the high bridge in 2020, we have seen increased bike, car, and pedestrian traffic on West Marginal Way SW as part of the detour network. We will continue to prioritize moving freight and goods on this major truck street, and the planned street redesign will further separate vulnerable users from the faster traveling traffic and trucks,” Director Zimbabwe wrote. “Building the 0.4-mile protected bike lane after the high bridge reopens in mid-2022 allows SDOT to meet safety priorities and continue to balance impacts to the high bridge detours.”
The bike lane will utilize a stretch of Marginal Way between the five-way intersection at Chelan Ave SW at the foot of the West Seattle Bridge, where only one travel lane heads southbound, and the Duwamish Longhouse, where in 2019 SDOT reduced the number of southbound lanes from two to one in order to improve sightlines for people crossing near the Longhouse without a signal.
SDOT’s data shows that even with the increased amount of traffic utilizing West Marginal with the West Seattle High Bridge closed, which SDOT says is about 15,000 more vehicles per day, the impacts to travel time that would be caused by adding the bike lane now would be negligible. Approximately 80% of drivers are already occupying the inner southbound lane according to SDOT.
Former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, co-chair of the taskforce, said he disagreed with the decision but that delaying the bike lane until after the High Bridge reopens “sends a good message.” Nickels has frequently brought up the subject of vehicles turning into driveways across the bike lane as a problematic element of this project. In this month’s meeting, he also brought up the issue of drivers utilizing the center turn lane as a passing lane, which is an an issue with many SDOT facilities that don’t have bike lanes.
Port of Seattle Commissioner Peter Steinbrueck, a member of the bridge taskforce, pushed back hardest on the decision during the meeting, saying that the Port has “grave concerns on behalf of the seaport” about installing an on-street bike facility on West Marginal Way. His comments echoed that of fellow taskforce and Freight Advisory Boardmember John Persak, who has suggested that the bike lane should undergo more environmental review since it is located along a major freight corridor. The Port of Seattle’s Regional Transportation Director Geraldine Poor attended the closed-door meeting in early June where freight advocates made their case against building the bike lane — we don’t know how stridently she pushed back on the bike facility in that meeting.
Commissioner Steinbrueck sent a list of follow-up questions to Director Zimbabwe in advance of the bridge taskforce meeting; among those questions was one that addressed the question of environmental review. “I’m unclear why SEPA/environmental review doesn’t apply here. Please explain. And why, given the amount of concern raised by many stakeholders about the proposed bike lane split on WMW, would you not put the project through environmental review anyway? That would remove lingering doubts raised over the viability of ensuring both bicycle safety and freight mobility,” it read.
Other questions requested details on alternatives to constructing the bike lane in-street that SDOT has already addressed with groups like the Freight Advisory Board in prior meetings. It’s unclear what avenues an outside group, or perhaps even the Port itself, could utilize to force the City of Seattle to conduct additional environmental review but a lawsuit is always a possibility. Director Zimbabwe pushed back on the idea that SDOT was cutting any corners on environmental review, insisting the department always adheres with the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA).
Heather Marx, the Director of West Seattle Bridge and Downtown Mobility at SDOT, has responded to Commissioner Steinbrueck’s questions (you can see the entire set of questions and answers here). In terms of the SEPA question, she responded: “SDOT will ensure that the project fully complies with SEPA. SDOT’s traffic analysis evaluating the potential impacts of the bike lane and the separate, independent signal project show negligible impacts to traffic in the corridor, as described above. We have provided the data collected and corresponding analysis to determine the five seconds of additional average delay with the project to the Port of Seattle / [Northwest Seaport Alliance] staff and can provide that same information to you as well.”
The announcement that the bike lane will be built next year is a win for people who bike on West Marginal Way and perhaps unsurprising given the long public process that this short facility has now undergone at this point. But it also may give opponents of the project more time to push back against the project and discuss possible negative impacts that could come from completion without having to contend with any real data that could be available if the project was constructed this year. Given the level of opposition to this, this will probably not be the end of pushback on this project.
Update: This article was updated on July 20, 2021 to provide additional information from SDOT’s Heather Marx that responds to Port of Seattle Commissioner Peter Steinbrueck.
Ryan Packer lives in the Summit Slope neighborhood of Capitol Hill and has been writing for the The Urbanist since 2015. They report on multimodal transportation issues, #VisionZero, preservation, and local politics. They believe in using Seattle's history to help attain the vibrant, diverse city that we all wish to inhabit. Ryan's writing has appeared in Capitol Hill Seattle Blog, Bike Portland, and Seattle Bike Blog, where they also did a four-month stint as temporary editor.