After 909 days without a high-rise bridge, the drivers and passengers of West Seattle will regain seven road lanes, and maybe a touch of euphoria, when the repaired crossing reopens today.
“The bridge is better. It is safer. It will ensure we stay better connected and unified, much more so than we were before,” said longtime resident Pramila Jayapal, who represents the city in the U.S. House, in a speech near the jobsite.
The peninsula’s already-thick traffic instantly worsened March 23, 2020, when rapidly accelerating shear cracks, which were tiny when discovered seven years earlier, caused the Seattle Department of Transportation to close the bridge entrances. That fall, after contractors stabilized four weak areas, then-Mayor Jenny Durkan chose long-term repairs, rather than a new bridge.
Traffic more than doubled on the main detour routes along the Duwamish River, from 9,760 to 24,880 average weekday trips on West Marginal Way South. At peak times and some weekends, it could take nearly an hour to reach and cross the First Avenue South drawbridge, heading to downtown or Interstate 5.
Duwamish River neighborhoods of South Park and Georgetown, home to many lower-income residents, hope the bridge reopening brings relief, after two years of overflow traffic that also contributed to chronic air pollution.
We’ve been down this road before, says West Seattle historian Clay Eals.
He compared the feeling of shock to 1978, when a ship crashed into one of the twin, four-lane drawbridges across the Duwamish River. Motorists idled on the Fauntleroy Way hillside and Harbor Island to squeeze through two lanes each direction, haunted by steel-mesh decks stuck upright, until the new concrete bridge opened during 1983 and 1984. People adapted both times, he said.
Today’s reopening of traffic brings a “return to normal,” Eals said.
What’s normal? Here are some basics:
When does the bridge reopen?
SDOT has kept the exact time a secret to deter drivers from bunching at the entrances. One clue: State roadwork on the southbound I-5 West Seattle Bridge exit is supposed to end by 6 a.m. today.
How many lanes will there be?
Three general traffic lanes each way, plus the bus-only lane that flows toward Highway 99 downtown, will operate the same as before. Westbound lanes were shifted right to allow a new left-side shoulder for bridge-maintenance crews. The speed limit remains 45 mph.
Will travelers find anything different?
Concrete road decks were repaved in the hillside Fauntleroy Way approach lanes, so the surface will be smoother, with more traction. Many new signs were installed, including a display showing the distances from the high rise to three West Seattle exits. The city is designing a future deck rebuild to solve recurring potholes between the bridge and Beacon Hill.
Do restrictions on the low bridge go away?
Yes. When the high bridge reopens, the two-lane swing bridge beneath — which was restricted most hours to transit, freight, emergency vehicles, and a few other uses such as urgent medical trips during the long high-bridge repair project — will revert to general traffic, and SDOT will turn off its enforcement cameras that have generated thousands of $75 fines.
How is traffic likely to change?
Drivers may find volatile commutes the first couple of weeks, with bad congestion some days and easy trips other days, complicated by confused travelers making lane changes “like tourists,” predicted Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington.
Then the bridge should settle into a pattern similar to I-5 and other highways, he said. Morning volumes will be lighter than before the pandemic because many West Seattleites will keep working from home, he said, while afternoon traffic will be worse because of school, recreation, shopping and other trips including teleworkers after their home shifts.
It’s reasonable to think volumes won’t quite reach the 100,000 daily vehicles and nearly 20,000 transit riders in the late 2010s. When trips decrease, what tends to happen is the so-called “shoulders of the peak” become shorter, and the worst commute traffic snarls might last two hours instead of three hours.
Will the city impose tolls?
No. At least, there’s no serious proposal under consideration right now.
Why should people think this repair will last?
“We are confident that the repaired bridge will stand strong for decades to come,” SDOT blogged after a successful load test a few days ago, when a dozen 80,000-pound dump trucks crossed in groups.
Crews added more than 50 miles of steel cable to compress not only the middle span’s severely cracked areas, but also the approach spans on either side. They also fastened carbon-fiber wrap. The job used well-established bridge-repair methods. Independent experts and a study by engineering firm WSP agreed there’s a 95 percent likelihood the strengthened bridge can last until the goal of approximately 2060. The repair contractor, Kraemer North America, has delivered many bridge projects, including Seattle’s new John Lewis Memorial Bridge over I-5 for walk-bike travelers using Northgate Station.
Is the bridge being monitored in case of new cracks?
Yes. All three bridge spans have been outfitted with 24-hour measuring devices, plus closed-circuit cameras within the girder sections where cracks formed in the 2010s. SDOT’s spending to date for this effort, known as structural health monitoring, is $3.4 million.
Even in heavy traffic, about 80 percent of forces on the bridge come from the concrete structure’s own dead weight.
Did the project help people walking and bicycling?
The high-rise bridge remains for motor vehicles only. Pedestrians and cyclists will continue using their lane on the lower Spokane Street swing bridge.
SDOT added a pedestrian-activated signal at the Duwamish Tribe longhouse to help people cross West Marginal Way, retrofitted the small walk-bike bridge over Fauntleroy Way to withstand earthquakes, and built a new bike lane alongside the Nucor Steel mill on Southwest Andover Street.
Last year, the agency promised a protected bike lane on West Marginal near the swing bridge in 2022 after the high bridge reopens. It’s been postponed for another round of analysis, The Urbanist reported.
What did repairs cost?
SDOT spent $19.7 million to stabilize the bridge in 2020, and budgeted $58.2 million for the permanent repairs and strengthening.
The overall Reconnect West Seattle program also includes rehabilitation of the lower swing bridge, along with street repaving, signals, safety, future-bridge plans and transit service. Many neighborhood projects, such as the new Highland Park Way stoplight, or repaving of Southwest Roxbury Street, were needed anyway.
As of early September, SDOT spent $102.4 million of the $175.2 million budget. Several local and low-bridge jobs remain to be completed, along with some contractor payments, through the rest of 2022. Final costs are expected to wind up under budget, spokesperson Ethan Bergerson said.
Residents and landowners provide most funding through local taxes. The City Council approved $108 million bond debt, while the federal government contributed $27.1 million, Washington state $12 million and the Port of Seattle $9 million, among other sources.
What happened to building a shared bridge with Sound Transit?
That idea appears defunct. Sound Transit is independently planning to build a train bridge, probably south of the road bridge, in the 2030s.