West Seattle “low bridge”: Open-and-shut case


We weren’t here for the years before the “high bridge,” but we understand life was quite different when everyone trying to cross the Duwamish into and out of West Seattle was at the mercy of marine traffic. Now, we have the “high bridge” (completed in 1984) and the “low bridge” (completed in 1991), which elegantly swings open to allow marine traffic to get through. It’s that bridge Jennifer e-mailed WSB about to suggest a discussion:

I was wondering if there has been any discussion on the WSB or elsewhere about the opening of the lower bridge during rush hour? I began a daily trip across the lower bridge about two months ago, in order to reach my son’s day care on East Marginal, and I’m continually amazed at how frequently the lower bridge is opened around 8 AM and 5 PM, peak traffic times. Combine it with trains, the hellish traffic light at Spokane/West Marginal, and the occasional accident on the West Seattle Bridge (and all the folks who think they’ll beat the traffic by hopping down to the lower bridge), the roads leading to the lower bridge are gridlocked quite frequently.

Before I incur the wrath of indignant commenters (Ride the bus! Find daycare closer to home! Don’t complain because ships are people too! Go back to California!) I’d like to point out that this isn’t a whiney complaint; I’m really just interested to know what folks might know about it. I’m surprised that the trucking traffic coming out of all the Port terminals doesn’t take precedence over the ships passing through. Is there really a well-devised plan to take into account the needs of ship traffic, weighted against the huge traffic tie-ups that result during certain hours of the day? Forget the measly little commuters in their SUVs – what about the business impact to the industry in the area?

Also, my observation is that the lower bridge affects everyone who commutes in and out of WS – including bus riders, bicyclists, workers in the Duwamish area, truckers, and everyone on the ‘big’ bridge – because when the lower bridge is closed, everyone heads up there and does some kind of crazy u-turn in the 1st Avenue South area.

Thanks for any insights.

Here’s what the Seattle Department of Transportation has to say about it. (The bottom-line quote from that link, “The Southwest Spokane Street Swing Bridge opens on demand, even during rush hour.”)

18 Replies to "West Seattle "low bridge": Open-and-shut case"

  • beef November 8, 2007 (9:44 am)

    well. i hit the lower bridge every workday about 7 and 4 for the last 5 years. you just have to take the ups and downs for the convenience of that option. i come from the south on w marginal and from the north 99. i get the benefit of having the signs and blinking lights telling me if the bridge is open and can adjust accordingly.

    i assume most west seattle people like the fact that trucks have a somewhat alternate route to get out of the container yards than clogging up the west seattle bridge trying to accelerate to normal operating speeds. that more than anything frustrates me on the lower bridge, when a truck dies in the middle of the span :) but that’s life.

  • Michael November 8, 2007 (10:07 am)

    Considering they built the “high bridge” for the very people inconvenienced by the “low bridge,” you can’t really say WDOT hasn’t done enough. ;)

    My advice: familiarize yourself with alternate routes, and when those low-bridge lights are flashing (and we’re luckier than other bridge neighbors because we have those) use those routes.

  • Soupytwist November 8, 2007 (10:28 am)

    Sometimes, you just have to drive through South Park, and come back north. I would like to see a bus route that runs over the lower bridge and goes down Alaskan Way – I’m still amazed at how unconnected the waterfront is from the rest of the city, and it would be very easy to connect to WS with some good transit service.

  • Scott J. November 8, 2007 (10:53 am)

    I commuted on my bike from WS to downtown this summer, and between the lower level bridge going up and the trains once you get across, cars and bikes can really get backed up. Some of those long freight trains down the the Sculpture Park can block the street for 15-20 minutes, right in the middle of rush hour. The backups can be huge.

    I think the trains have the same “federal” protection as boats that says they can block streets/raise bridges whenever they like. If some local politician could get around this, and keep streets open and bridges down during rush hour, they’d be a hero.

  • Pete November 8, 2007 (11:07 am)

    This is something that the Delridge Neighborhoods District Council is discussing right now. This is something that can be changed if there is enough community support for this change. You will be hearing more about this proposed change and other transportation issues in the coming months. If you have an interest in participating in these discussions and becoming a part of positive change for transportation issues in West Seattle becoming involved in teh District Council system is a great place to start. You can contact delridgedistrictcouncil@comcast.net for information on how to become more inovolved in issues like this.

  • jmland November 8, 2007 (11:44 am)

    for those who support keeping the bridges closed during rush hour, you would keep commercial cargo traffic at bay for an hour or more just so you could save 10 minutes of driving? how fair is that?

    my advice: if you get stuck by the open bridge, turn your car off, turn the radio on, and relax for 10 minutes. you’ll need the stress relief when you continue on your harried commute.

    either that, or keep a watch out for the flashing lights warning of a bridge opening. if they’re flashing, take the high bridge.

  • Scott J. November 8, 2007 (1:27 pm)

    Per jmland’s comment above–I think keeping the bridges closed and trains off major streets for an hour in the morning and an hour at night is fair. They have 22 hours in the rest of the day to open/block when they need too.

    The 10 minutes (more like 20 unless you’re right at the front) is not a real problem for me (unless I’m on my bike and it happens to be raining). But when you times it by the hundreds of drivers stuck, it’s a real pain. Sometimes the jam up on the lower level bridge when it opens causes real gridlock. Why have one more traffic jam?

  • Ron Burgundy November 8, 2007 (1:39 pm)

    The low bridge has to be the slowest draw bridge in America. I realize that it is an engineering marvel, a hydraulic swing bridge. In fact, at one point, there was only one other of it’s kind in the world, in Iraq, and it was bombed during our first go round there. I’d be willing to bet they didn’t rebuild the new one with the same technology.

  • G. Williams November 8, 2007 (1:40 pm)

    Why have one more traffic jam?

    I don’t know–given how much ship and train traffic I see going through there, I suspect there’s the potential for a traffic jam of a different sort.

  • SomeGuy November 8, 2007 (2:54 pm)

    We need a high high bridge. Then the current “high bridge” would become the “middle bridge”. “Low bridge” would remain the “low bridge”.
    Then all us fatcats can jet by you lower class jokers going 35mph on the middle and low bridges on our way over to our WS estates with the big walls and sweet views.

  • Jim November 8, 2007 (4:47 pm)

    Federally navigable waterway is the catch phrase for the Duwamish. A federal right of way if you will. Limitations are set during rush hour but are based on tonnage. The sailboat has to wait till 6PM but the freighter can pass through anytime.

    The Low level bridge is an in house design by the city of Seattle, and local businesses. The hydraulics are extensive, from the huge pins that retract under the roadway, to the lifting of both structures a couple inches straight up prior to spinning them. Each step adds time to the opening.

    Compare that to the old Northern Pacific Bridge just a couple hundred yards south. It runs off an electric motor, and is so finely balanced it can be raised and lowered with a chain crank if the power is out. It must be nearly a hundred years old.

    Speaking of backyard fires… Rolf Neslund did West Seattlelites a favor by taking out the old bridge, but on the other hand, he opened up what was a fairly isolated community to the rest of the city.

  • herongrrrl November 8, 2007 (5:16 pm)

    As I see it, waiting for the bridge from time to time is part of living in a seaport town that still has an active maritime industry. (And since that industry happens to pay most of my bills, I’m happy that it’s here!) The combination of bridges we have now is a vast improvement from the old drawbridge–even with WS’s much larger population now, you seldom wait anywhere near as long to get across the Duwamish as you did back then.

    Driving boats isn’t the same as driving cars. You can’t really hit the brakes on a boat in water with variable currents and the inertia of the boat’s motion thrown in to the equation, and you need a MUCH longer stopping distance with a boat than with a car. It wouldn’t be physically possible to have the low bridge act like a 4-way intersection with cars going E-W and boats going N-S.

  • CMP November 8, 2007 (6:05 pm)

    Trucks, ships and trains should have restrictions on when they can inconvenience the rest of that area…they cause most of the traffic problems. I know they’re an integral part of our economy but time is money and I don’t appreciate having to waste 20 minutes of my time for someone to stage a freight train along 1st Avenue at 4:00 PM. And the morning commute is no better. Harbor Island should be closed from 7:00 am to 5:00. I wish I were as patient as those that don’t mind wasting 15 minutes of their life waiting for a bridge to open and close, but I have better things to do with my time.

  • Aidan Hadley November 8, 2007 (8:58 pm)

    Believe it or not but there are other modes of transportation that are just as important to our economy and our city than you in your car. Sometimes you just have to wait. Deal with it.

  • Maria November 9, 2007 (8:46 am)

    There are maritime laws. The ships have the right of way. They are allowed this as they were there first and the bridge was built after the fact. The ships can not be impeded. I didn’t realize about tonage. Then there is some restrictions on opening the bridge.

  • m November 9, 2007 (4:20 pm)

    I don’t mind waiting since it gives me time to tidy up my car or make a quick phone call while I wait. Now if only the trucks and buses would turn their engines off while they waited for the bridges; I always seem to get stuck near one and the exhaust is gross.

  • CO Transplant in WS November 10, 2007 (7:03 pm)

    An amazing amount of whining here. Commuting is a bear. So what? Does anyone think it could be any other way when existing infrastructure bottlenecks road, marine and rail traffic?

    BTW, the bridges in both directions are free and clear at 5 AM. Just something to think about if productive time in the city is so important.

  • Chris November 14, 2007 (10:29 am)

    Yes – Time is money. I deal with the “low bridge” every day to and from work. For those of us that are inconvenienced for 10 to 15 minutes when the bridge is open, there are alternatives if you are alert. Those pesky tugs, ships and barges that cause the bridge to open are generally on charter to customers from $5,000 to upwards of $50,0000 per day.

    The trucks and trains that are on the road are servicing many of these ships (inbound and outbound). These barges and ships are delivering the materials and goods used by all of us as well as providing the supply chain to Alaska, driving much of the local economy.

    The low-level bridge is, I agree, one of the slowest swing bridges I have ever encountered. If you see the yellow “use high level bridge” lights flashing, it is your option to use the “over and return” route on the high level bridge.

    The vessel traffic was there long before the influx of commuter traffic to / from West Seattle. The vessels have no alternate route. Delaying a ship has consequences for the ship owner, the ship charterer, the longshoreman working the ship, the ship agent, the truck and rail link, the assist tugs helping the ship in and out etc.

Sorry, comment time is over.