(Dec. 2: De-icer-slick, closed-to-traffic bridge; photo by Christopher Boffoli)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
In a briefing before the City Council Transportation Committee, SDOT has just admitted what really caused the de-icer debacle eight days ago, when multiple crashes happened on the de-icer-slickened West Seattle Bridge, subsequently shut down until it could be sanded (WSB as-it-happened coverage here).
It was NOT the fault of possible driver error, NOT the fault of too-warm temperatures, both of which were cited by an SDOT spokesperson afterward, but instead: The magnesium-chloride de-icer liquid was applied at twice the rate it should have been. (We had asked about operator error, too, that day, asking SDOT spokesperson Rick Sheridan via e-mail: “So there was nothing different in the formula or the amount?” His reply: “Not that we are currently aware of.”)
The discussion about the de-icer problem was followed by a shorter exchange about last Friday morning’s 2 1/2-hour lane blockage on the Viaduct (WSB as-it-happened coverage here) – why that couldn’t be cleared sooner, and why Metro didn’t reroute sooner, given the massive resulting backup:
The answer to that last matter was a “facepalm,” as one person put it on Twitter – the city’s Traffic Management Center is usually staffed at that hour by interns, and on Friday morning, an intern who had not worked there before was on duty. Which apparently explains the first, belated SDOT tweet about the lane blockage:
SR 99 is very congested due to a bad accident
— seattledot (@seattledot) December 6, 2013
Just before 8, Metro finally texted word of a reroute, as we tweeted:
JUST got the first C Line reroute text from @kcmetrobus b/c of ongoing 99 woes. Will stop NB at 3rd/Seneca since missing EB Seneca/3rd.
— West Seattle Blog (@westseattleblog) December 6, 2013
(STORY CONTINUES BELOW, WITH MEETING VIDEO ADDED AT THE END, AND POST-MEETING FOLLOWUP)
But let’s backtrack. The following, added at 11:19 am, details how the discussion unfolded during this morning’s Council committee briefing, which just wrapped up:
The committee’s chair, West Seattle-residing Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, opened the briefing noting: “People want to know what happened, how in the world did that happen, and what can be done to keep that from happening again,”
SDOT manager Steve Pratt – who also had suggested temperatures and speed were to blame (see his memo at the end of our 12/2 coverage) – led the discussion of the de-icer problem that closed the high bridge for more than two hours on Monday of last week.
Pratt talked about the “various dire forecasts of the storm that was supposed to come” and said SDOT was “monitoring it closely,” including the impending Monday Night Football game. A strategy session resulted in decisions to “pre-treat” the West Seattle high bridge, Alaskan Way Viaduct, and other elevated structures including the Aurora Bridge. “We were trying to be pro-active,” he said, and noted that they “looked at five different forecasts.” He said one of those suggested there would be at least an inch of sleet between 1 and 3 pm on that day. The application started around 11:30 am. Seattle Police called at 12:40 to say “You’ve got a problem, SDOT, because the material you’re putting down is causing slippery conditions,” after crashes started happening. SPD advised SDOT at 1:02 pm they would close the bridge both ways and wanted a sand-spreader truck and that they wouldn’t open the bridge until we got that done “because it was too slick.”
It was an “unfortunate event,” Pratt said, “a plain and simple error. … we made a mistake, he [the truck driver] was applying the magnesium chloride at twice the rate he should have been.”
The error was “not somebody just training on the job,” added outgoing SDOT director Peter Hahn: “The dial was set at 30 instead of 15.” “Gallons per lane mile,” elaborated Pratt. Hahn continued, “It’s really not that mysterious, the setting was off, and a mistake was made.”
Pratt also said that it was advised not to apply the substance, known commercially as FreezGard, if the road surface is 40 degrees or warmer – and at the time, it was 38 degrees, but “the forecast was for the temperatures to drop fairly rapidly into the evening.” That didn’t happen, he noted; sleet/graupel didn’t happen until much later that night.
SDOT said it apologizes both to those who were involved in crashes and those who were inconvenienced by the bridge closure.
The discussion also touched on authorities saying they couldn’t see the 99 offramp to the West Seattle Bridge and didn’t know about at least one crash there.
Regarding communication, SDOT said that if they are going to apply de-icer during the daytime, which is not SOP, they need to let Seattle Police and the public know.
Now, to the Friday problem – why it took 2 1/2 hours to clear a one-car crash, and also why Metro didn’t reroute quickly.
That section of road had been treated with “correctly applied magnesium chloride” about two hours earlier, SDOT said, and that’s about all it knew.
Renewing our inquiries yesterday, SDOT pointed us to SPD, and that’s what happened during today’s briefing.
Captain Joe Kessler of the Southwest Precinct said that a “disabled car” and “minor accident” played into it and officers were sent over at about 7:47 am. It was reported around 6:15 am; we took this frame grab from a traffic cam at 6:45:
Almost an hour later, still there:
And an hour after that, the vehicle was finally hooked to a tow truck:
Officers from other sectors were the primary responders, Capt. Kessler said, and “ended up being tied up on other things, so when they finally send officers from West Seattle … they had a tough time getting there. … They actually spent quite a bit of time trying to get there. Once they got there, it was just a matter of trying to get tow trucks there. My understanding is that they had to send a second truck with enough material to clean it up … so they had to go through the same thing … Part of the problem is that with all the construction going on, once there is a bottleneck, it’s kind of tough to get it cleared out, so one thing we need to look a little closer at … plans for closing the bridge and rerouting traffic around there .. On Friday, it was just one of those circumstances, bad timing, heavy traffic, just hard to get in there and get it cleared out.”
What about tow trucks stationed on approaches to the bridge? asked Rasmussen.
“Where would you put them?” asked Hahn.
Rasmussen suggested that conditions were even worse now than when the idea was first proposed under former Mayor Greg Nickels and perhaps SDOT could take a closer look.
The focus turned to the fact that Metro didn’t call for reroutes until the lane had been blocked, and backups intensifying, for an hour and a half. Why didn’t they get the word? Rasmussen wondered.
That’s when an SDOT rep in the briefing explained that the Traffic Management Center often relies on interns – and one who hadn’t worked there before was pulling the shift on Friday morning, so word about the seriousness of the bridge backup didn’t get out – to Metro or anyone else who relied on city word about such things – until 8 am, more than an hour and a half after the blockage.
Rasmussen suggested rather calmly that they might want to fix that. SDOT said that it will be fixed next year. He suggested maybe they move it up a few weeks and get professional staff into the Traffic Management Center starting perhaps around 6 am, when commuters hit the roads. He also mentioned again that it might be of value to traffic managers to keep an eye on WSB for a clue to how serious a problem like this was getting.
The archived video of this meeting will be available via Seattle Channel later – perhaps by day’s end. We’ll add it here when available.
3:04 PM: Here it is. Pull the time bar to about 64 minutes in, to jump ahead to the discussion of these incidents:
ADDED 3:37 PM: Just talked with Councilmember Rasmussen to follow up on all this. For one, he says, he wants to see SDOT and SPD return to the committee within a month or so with a rapid-response plan for the 99 corridor and West Seattle Bridge. That would include “monitoring (traffic) at least 6-9 am and 4 to 7 pm, (with) a plan for rapidly towing and clearing obstructions, and real-time information for the public.” That would include every tool available – text alerts, Twitter, the readerboards installed over major arterials/bridges.
For West Seattle, especially, because as he notes, “We are constrained now – there are so few lanes and so few options, that when there’s a (problem like this) you lose half a day, and, you could lose lives – as I pointed out (during the hearing), people can’t get to the hospital.”
Such a plan might involve, if feasible, temporarily shutting down access to the bridge or Viaduct to bring in a tow truck or whatever was needed, clear the obstruction, and move on – instead of having the tow truck try to slog through the stopped traffic.
With SDOT director Hahn leaving, we asked him, what’s the plan for accountability? Rasmussen said he expects Mayor-elect Murray will be appointing an interim director while conducting a national search for a permanent SDOT leader. And the Traffic Management Center should have “trained professionals, not an intern.”
To the de-icer error, he said it’s ironic since SDOT has worked to improve its winter-storm response in the past three years, but at least he “appreciated their willingness” to admit the error now, while agreeing it was unfortunate they were quick to lay the blame elsewhere the day it happened.