VIDEO: Fish-truck crash spawns new city plan for managing ‘traffic incidents’

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

Before the next bridge-snarling crash – or a stall that takes hours to clear – city leaders vow to go the extra mile to work on how they deal with traffic trouble.

The promises were made in the middle of a midsummer Friday afternoon, with the Blue Angels roaring overhead – a time when many in all lines of work do their best to call it quits early and head out to revel; instead, media were summoned to SDOT‘s Traffic Management Center (and an adjacent conference room) to hear details of a consultant’s critique of the city’s traffic-incident-management (TIM) policies.

Or, relative lack of them, per this key conclusion of the report:

A lack of coordination among agencies in Seattle – including but not limited to the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) – was immediately identified as a recurring problem in Seattle’s TIM response.

The report was ordered after the infamous tipped-fish-truck fiasco on southbound Highway 99 last March, a crash that took nine hours to clear, though no one was seriously hurt, and that caused chain-reaction backups around the city while turning the highway itself into a walkway for some.

(Reader photo texted during March 2015 fish-truck blockage on SB 99)
Throughout those nine hours, we featured as-it-happened coverage, and followed up the next day here; Councilmember Tom Rasmussen promised followup reports. By May, Mayor Ed Murray had ordered the review and recommendations that he and Rasmussen unveiled Friday.

Atop this report is our video of most of Friday’s briefing (we were a few minutes late so it starts as the mayor was wrapping up his introductory comments). Below is the report by consultants TransSafe Consulting and Sam Schwartz Engineering, whose proprietor Annette Sandberg, a former Washington State Patrol chief, presented a slide deck of highlights during the briefing – or browse the embedded version below:

Ahead – key points of what’s being recommended, and what happens now:

This is of course not the only report ever issued following a high-profile traffic incident that led to citywide gridlock. Less than a year before the fish-truck crash, the June 2014 five-hour, four-mile closure of Highway 99 because of a crash just south of the West Seattle Bridge also resulted in much dissection, including this “after-action report” with some recommendations that came out three months later:

But the report and recommendations presented last Friday went far beyond all that. Section D contains 90 recommendations – many involving policies, procedures, and accountabilities. Here are the ones that caught our eye:

D3: ESTABLISH POLICY AND PROCEDURES FOR CLEARING TRAFFIC WITH PUSH-BARS

D4: ESTABLISH POLICY/PROCEDURES FOR SPD TRAFFIC AND PATROL UNITS WHEN RESPONDING TO MAJOR BLOCKING INCIDENTS, AND PROVIDE THESE UNITS WITH ACTION PLANS TO ASSIST IN DETOURS, SIGNAL CONTROL, ACTIVATING (the) EMERGENCY OPERATIONS CENTER, AND OTHER ON-SCENE TASKS

D5: CREATE STAGING AREAS FOR RESPONSE VEHICLES (so they can respond more quickly)

D7: TO QUICKLY PROVE DISABLED VEHICLES AWAY FROM TRAVEL LANES, THE CITY … SHOULD ENSURE THAT THE STATE’S “STEER IT, CLEAR IT” LAW APPLIES IN SEATTLE.

D9: QUALIFIED PERSONNEL FROM SDOT AND/OR SPD SHOULD BE ON SCENE TO MAKE DECISIONS AS TO HOW A CRASH SCENE IS CLEARED, WITH A CLEAR ESCLATION OF COMMAND. This recommendation goes on to say, “Major decisions should not be left to the towing operator.”

D13: EQUIP CITY VEHICLES WITH STREAMING VIDEO CAMERAS TO PROVIDE SDOT’S TRAFFIC OPERATIONS CENTER WITH ADDITIONAL INFORMATION FROM INCIDENT SCENES.

E4: SDOT SHOULD PROVIDE ‘SIGALERTS’ OR “GRIDLOCK ALERTS’ THAT PROVIDE CITYWIDE NOTICE OF EITHER MAJOR PLANNED EVENTS … OR FOLLOWING A MAJOR TRAFFIC INCIDENT THAT CAUSES WIDESPREAD STRAIN ON THE ROAD NETWORK

E6. SDOT SHOULD PREPLAN FOR MAJOR INCIDENTS … including creating “pre-set reroute plans for all major arterials”

E7: EXPAND (TRAFFIC CAMERA) PROGRAM TO COVER ADDITIONAL STREETS AND AREAS

E12: SDOT AND SPD SHOULD JOINTLY CREATE A (TRAFFIC INCIDENT MANAGEMENT) PLAN (FOR) WHEN THE TUNNEL REPLACES THE EXISTING VIADUCT ALONG SR-99. “The plan should include planned reroutes for … when an incident occurs in the tunnel itself.”

E14: MODERNIZE SDOT’S TOC TO IDENTIFY INCIDENTS MORE QUICKLY. This would be done “through upgraded technology and better use of available resources” including a “screen showing vehicle speeds in real time,” a “map with all current Variable Message Sign displays,” and more.

Also:

Section F of the recommendations points out that the city “currently has a towing contract with one company; this is restrictive and may hinder the city’s TIM outcomes.” So the first thing on the list advises “explor(ing) new tow contracts and amendments,” possibly “opening up the contract to multiple tow companies through a competitive bidding process,” and/or “shifting tow responsibility to SDOT and/or SPD.” The seventh recommendation in this section suggests that the city “consider a ‘free tow’ program to remove disabled vehicles from major highways (SR-99), arterials, and bridges at no cost to the motorist.” Two recommendations later, it’s suggested that SDOT be allowed to call in a tow from the TOC instead of waiting for an officer to arrive at the scene.

Section G focuses on commercial-vehicle enforcement, including the observation that “currently there is a lack of clarity on the roles of SPD and SDOT in CVE.” For our area, with trucks serving port terminals, the state of these policies and responses can be key, and in fact, recommendation G11 is to “develop procedures for handling commercial vehicle backups on city streets, pre-plan(ning) staging areas, traffic control, etc.”

Section H includes accountability and communications – starting with H1, to “create specific performance measures to track clearance times and set goals” for improvement, while H5 advises, “During major incidents, provide consistent media outreach and transparent information to the public on alternate routes as well as on the status of incident-clearance efforts.”

Following the Friday afternoon briefing, those of us in attendance were invited to visit the recently remodeled SDOT Traffic Management Center, whose manager Adiam Emery explained a bit about its workings.

This is the hub for messages that go out to the public, including the lit message boards leading to major routes, plus SDOT’s tweets about incidents around the city.

One recommendation in the 2014 “after-action report” mentioned above has taken effect – more staffing in the TMC for longer hours. Even the staffing at the time of the 2014 incident was an improvement from what was revealed after two incidents in December 2013, the notorious de-icer debacle on the West Seattle Bridge and a 2 1/2-hour northbound 99 blockage a few days later. Discussion of both incidents at a City Council meeting revealed that at the time of the Viaduct blockage, during the early part of the morning rush hour, the TMC had “an intern” on duty.

WHAT’S NEXT: If you scroll through the full report above, you’ll see that the recommendations are prioritized, and also labeled with potential time frames in which they could be turned into reality – “immediate,” “short term,” “long term.” The mayor said he would have a final plan for all this in January, after a task force reviews and discusses the recommendations. Councilmember Rasmussen (whose term will be over by then, since he’s not running for re-election), said he hoped to find ways to make more of the recommendations happen more quickly. The Transportation Committee, which Rasmussen chairs, will have a briefing on August 13th.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: During the Friday briefing, Councilmember Rasmussen also mentioned the West Seattle Bridge Corridor Task Force, and the plan to present its findings next month. We published this short report right after the briefing; we had asked a corridor-specific followup question just before the briefing ended, as you’ll hear toward the end of our video clip.

7 Replies to "VIDEO: Fish-truck crash spawns new city plan for managing 'traffic incidents'"

  • ChefJoe August 3, 2015 (9:50 pm)

    That’s interesting… it wasn’t that long ago they changed from multiple tow companies with different geographical principal areas to one tow company. They said the reason was to improve efficiency/implement new technologies/integrate with TOPS-CMA.

    Supposedly, the new tow contract (as stated in this 5/2014 audit Rasmussen asked for) already allowed 911 dispatch/PEO/SPD to enter tow requests in directly via the TOPS-CMA web application.
    http://www.seattle.gov/Documents/Departments/CityAuditor/auditreports/VIMSFinalReport.pdf

    Maybe they just weren’t being trained to use that tool ?

  • Jtm August 3, 2015 (11:04 pm)

    On one hand relieved this was addressed and not forgotten, on the other, 4.5 months to come up with (obvious) recommendations and another 5 to get a “final plan” in place?

  • AceMotel August 3, 2015 (11:35 pm)

    So the “solution” (for WS) came at the very end of the briefing, from SM Rasmussen: grade-separated light rail. Yes! And Mayor Murray’s suggestion, approaching Sound Transit to finance more light rail on a faster timetable, YES! I would gladly pay more taxes for that…..instead of the proposed 900M levy for short term Band Aids.

  • West Seattle Hipster August 4, 2015 (9:40 am)

    + 1 AceMotel, could not agree more.

  • Matt S. August 4, 2015 (11:10 pm)

    Nice wordplay, WSB!

    • WSB August 4, 2015 (11:34 pm)

      Thanks, Matt S.

  • Robert August 14, 2015 (8:09 am)

    it looks like the mayor and his minions are suggesting going back to the pay for tow rites that were in place during the 60s and 70s. cordes, totem ,central, ralphs columbia, all had to “kick in a jug” to get a tow call. , the tow companys were timed to clear the scene,.to slow, no more calls for a while.

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