West Seattle low-bridge woes: What the Port says about it

View WS Traffic Issue in a larger map

In the past few weeks, we’ve heard from several people about a traffic problem on the “low bridge” during rush hours, involving truck backups, and Port of Seattle Police directing traffic. Rob was the first to e-mail, and he made the Google Map you see above (follow the “View Larger Map” link for more details on what it shows). Most recently, Desiree wrote the other day to ask about this. We inquired with the port – so here, for starters, is what we received back from Port spokesperson Peter McGraw:

A combination of factors has created the current congestion – we are aware that it is impacting the community and have been working to keep traffic moving in and around Terminal 5.

Like many other businesses, terminal operators are feeling the impacts of the down economy with lower cargo volume, and are scaling back hours of gate operation to reduce costs. Other ports in the region are experiencing similar issues at their gates, though it can be more pronounced here because of the proximity of our terminals to major thoroughfares like the West Seattle Bridge.

Also, there’s a surge in export cargo from Eastern Washington right now- so more trucks from across the mountains are lining up at Terminal 5 very early in the morning. They do so in order to make a second trip on the same day. On the bright side, this means that goods are moving to markets, which is a very good sign for the region’s economy. Each container represents men and women working in King County.

The Port of Seattle has been working hard to correct this traffic problem by working with the truckers, terminal operators, City of Seattle and the port’s own police force to find a solution. We recognize this is a problem for the truckers, for nearby businesses, and for the community, and we are looking for both interim and long-term solutions. We also need to ensure that the swing bridge can open and close to allow marine traffic from the Duwamish to move in and out of Elliott Bay.

While we work with other stakeholders in finding a workable solution, Port of Seattle police will assign additional officers to keep intersections clear and make sure the swing bridge is not blocked. Please feel free to call either of the port’s media officers, myself, Peter McGraw (206-787-3446) or Charla Skaggs (206-787-3235) if you continue to experience unusual amounts of traffic congestion and delay in this area.

Rush hour bridge opening, of course, is yet another issue; you may recall the city’s request to reduce the number of rush-hour openings, and last year’s rejection of that request.

31 Replies to "West Seattle low-bridge woes: What the Port says about it"

  • I. Ponder November 22, 2009 (6:29 pm)

    On Friday (11/21) at about 7:45 AM, the traffic gates were lowered on the West Seattle Low Bridge (Spokane St. Bridge) to allow a ship to pass. No ship was to be seen. The gates remained closed for about 5 minutes when a ship being pushed by 2 tugs slowly began to appear at the head of the Duwamish. The bridge was then opened. The ship was either moving very slowly or not at all. It took more than 30 minutes for the ship to reach and pass the bridge at which point the bridge was closed and traffic allowed to proceed.

    I watched this entire process, as the first cyclist to reach the closure from the west side. Over the next 30 minutes, about a dozen cyclists arrived and waited. Car and truck traffic was severely backed up.

    The bridge tender occasionally came out and looked at the ship. The ship was very far off when all traffic was stopped.

    Aside from most people’s belief that rush hour is a bad time to pen the bridge, it appears the bridge tender was trigger-happy in closing the traffic gates about 20 minutes too soon.

    This is the third time in a week I have witnessed the bridge being opened during the 7:30-8:00 AM time period.

    I wonder how many other readers experienced this particular fiasco on Friday and were aware of the specifics. Traffic being stopped (gates down) long before the ship was even approaching the bridge. As a bike commuter I had the vantage-point of standing right there and watching it all in disbelief. Most drivers were stuck in traffic where they couldn’t see and likely had no idea why it took so long.

    So, even if the bridge opens during rush hour, there’s no excuse for a 1/2 hour traffic stoppage.

  • KSJ November 22, 2009 (7:24 pm)

    I’ve been noticing this problem with back-ups and wondering how this can possibly work for all those truck drivers. Between that and the rush-hour bridge openings, the port really needs to get their act together.

  • I. Ponder November 22, 2009 (7:52 pm)

    Wondering if the Port will hire additional “media officers” to spread more happy talk.

    The current situation is unacceptable and will only get worse as construction phases in on the 99 project.

  • Scott (no, the other Scott) November 22, 2009 (7:57 pm)

    Commercial traffic generally radios ahead for the bridge to open at a certain time. So, the problem Ponder saw was probably not the bridge operator, but the pilot or tug captain misjudging his or her arrival time. Despite best intentions, sometimes it just isn’t that easy to judge… it’s not like driving a car. For reasons that will be obvious if you watch the following video, they try not to take any chances with these things:

  • Ken November 22, 2009 (8:33 pm)

    Until I see otherwise, I will assume the flack for the Port just doesn’t realize he is lying like a rug.

    The port has in the past refused to admit any responsibility for backups at the gate. The teamsters union gets insane at any mention of not lining up and blocking the bridge, and the Seattle Police have refused to take part in any way in the past.

    I have seen these up close and have been blocked in on the bridge approach for more than an hour and a half with no bridge opening during that time. Multiple times.

    The last time a state game warden finally turned on his lights, climbed the barrier with his jeep and told the truck driver who did not want to lose his place in line, that he was just there to warn him that a big guy was walking up the bridge with a rifle and perhaps he should quit blocking the road and go on into west seattle to turn around.

    That’s what it will take to keep this bridge open to traffic.

    Threats of violence or arrest.

    If the Port commissioners want to prove me wrong this time, that would be great. But the port police and the entire organization is not interested in the least in how non commercial traffic flows. Their job is to juggle the gates to save money for the operators.

    Seattle Police have ignored it in the past and it should be a low priority to direct traffic in that area,

    But as long as it cost the truckers money to lose their place in line, it will continue.

    The port could fix this in a dozen different ways. We shall see if they choose one that does not involve placing head in sand.

    So take down the numbers neighbors and put them in your cell phone. Get the number for the main port and the port police from the net and save them too. And call them repeatedly next time your stuck.

  • Mike November 22, 2009 (10:03 pm)

    All it’ll take is one nice multi million dollar lawsuit for a death due to blocking aid. I bet a minor amount of $20M will bring the Port some great PR.

  • WS November 22, 2009 (10:53 pm)

    Just wait until the onramp from 1st Ave S to westbound on the the West Seattle bridge is torn down this spring (and won’t be replaced for 18 months). Where will all that traffic, including busses go? The shortest route will be to take the lower bridge to get to West Seattle, further congesting this horrible mess.
    SDOT’s recommendation is for all West Seattle bound traffic traveling south on 1st Ave S to either:
    1. get to West Seattle via I-5 (!)
    2. or pull a U-turn back to Columbia & get on 99 South
    3. or continue on 1st Ave to the SouthPark/1st Ave bridge & back door into to West Seattle.
    The fun is just beginning!

  • wisepunk November 23, 2009 (1:42 am)

    The port is being fairly lazy here. I take the lower bridge a lot and I have seen the backups going in both directions. The worst is the a.m. backup going eastbound. they get in the left lane and block the entire road down to the 6 way intersection. My trick is to turn right on to delridge and then pull an illegal u-turn on to the entrance. this avoids the intersection and is slightly dangerous.

    The port police should be on both sides of the bridge to ensure that traffic flows along these roads. But no, they are out pulling over non commercial vehicles. Post them on both sides and keep the traffic moving. If the truck has potential to block traffic then it needs to keep moving.

  • :) November 23, 2009 (8:02 am)

    I believe the actual problem here is that the terminal itself opens at 8:00am (operated by the longshore union IIRC). Most, if not all, of the truckers here are owner/operators and not teamsters, and try to show up early to get paid for one more trip. Since the terminal gate isn’t letting anyone in, the trucks back up. The design of the terminal doesn’t really accommodate backups of this volume outside of the gate, so that’s why we see what we do.

    Seems to me the most appropriate solution would be to issue parking tickets to any vehicles parked outside the gate before it opens (as they are technically parked and not driving until it opens).

  • austin November 23, 2009 (8:41 am)

    “..terminal operators are feeling the impacts of the down economy with lower cargo volume”
    “..there’s a surge in export cargo from Eastern Washington right now”
    Which is it?

  • GenHillOne November 23, 2009 (8:51 am)

    There’s an awful lot of land…is there really NO place these trucks could line up at the port to get them off the road?

  • k2 November 23, 2009 (9:16 am)

    yeah this is crazy, I bike to work through this area every morning all year ’round and have been doing it for the past 3 years, and it has never been like this.

    The issue with the bridge opening during rush hour is absolutely ridiculous, that should be completely avoidable.

    The other hazards not really mentioned here are the truckers and workers heading into harbor island have little respect for bikers/pedestrians they often sit idle blocking the bike lanes, and the deisel fumes (which are a good preliminary factor in heart attacks) are suffocating the bikers and walkers that make their way through this area, especially since they created that HUGE parking lot for the Trucks, they sit there and idle for 30-40 minutes before leaving the lot…

    can’t wait for the 1st ave ramp to get torn down!! woofricketyhoo.

  • Grazer November 23, 2009 (9:24 am)

    What is the environmental impact of all the trucks running in one of the most polluted areas in the state? What is the impact on endangered salmon? There are many ways to approach this if the port is not responding to the local community, perhaps it’s time to bring in the Feds to start enforcing standards.
    We need our local city council members to also act upon the community’s behalf. This must be resolved before the 1st ave ramp debacle begins. Call and make your voice heard!

  • Robert November 23, 2009 (10:12 am)

    I didn’t realize it before, but it does seem peculiar that SDOT is going to demolish the 1st Avenue ramp prior to the opening the 4th Avenue ramp. (And why does it seem to me that this ramp is taking “forver” to build?)

    First Quarter 2010 – Closure (& demolition) of existing 1st Avenue on-ramp
    Fourth Quarter 2010 – Eastbound lower roadway reopens
    Fourth Quarter 2010 – Opening of temporary lanes on new upper structure
    Fourth Quarter 2010 – New eastbound Fourth Avenue Off-Ramp opens

  • publicadministrator November 23, 2009 (10:30 am)

    to all you behind-the-windshield-traffic-engineers:

    It is the city’s Dept of Transporation which owns and operates the swing bridge, not the Port so any ire at opening it prematurely or during rush hour should be directed at SDOT. The roadway is the Spokane Street, also part of SDOT’s infrastructure and under SPD jurisdiction as far as truck traffic is concerned.

  • DEB November 23, 2009 (10:59 am)

    my favorite morning is when they closed the bridge to eastbound traffic so that they could open the bridge but it took over 20 minutes for them to clear the westbound bridge of trucks to do that…could not they have let eastbound traffic go through? The eastbound traffic was backed up to the Admiral onramp and since the trucks had the left turn to the terminal all blocked up you could not even turn around and try the upper bridge…it was ridiculous…..

  • WestSeattleDrew November 23, 2009 (11:27 am)

    Another outstanding job by the Port of Seattle… Has anyone noticed the increase of train horns blowing all night long and increase of noise coming from the Port (maybe steel mill)?

  • flynlo November 23, 2009 (11:36 am)

    Food for thought:

    If you zoom in on Rob’s map and move to the west, you will note that on Harbor Island, the street the trucks use to enter terminal 5 fans out into 5 lanes and then into 14 lanes BEFORE any truck gets to a “check in” gate. How often is ALL of that asphalt used to hold trucks? I realize that the port doesn’t want to staff all 14 check in gates, but is it beyond today’s technology to have someone walk 15 feet from gate to gate to check in 8-10 trucks at a time? Does the City of City Seattle REQUIRE the Port of Seattle to use ALL of that storage area rather than city streets for truck backup?

  • birdgeek November 23, 2009 (12:06 pm)

    ditto that flynlo.

    also, the traffic study done in the coast guard’s assessment is probably flawed when they assert that traffic volumes on the low bridge are lower than the ballard bridge or montlake bridge… duh… there’s only one lane in either direction on the low bridge, compared to two in each direction on those other drawbridges they cite. that’s not apples to apples. i wish i’d known about the comment period… last year? it was really bad down there this week!

  • Bridge Jumper November 23, 2009 (12:16 pm)

    Port truck traffic and pollution are not the fault of the low level truck drivers, longshoremen or Port Police. Traffic and pollution are the fault of the Port of Seattle leadership and the contracting trucking companies.

    The truck drivers are rarely employees of the trucking companies they work for. That’s why they line up early – to compete against each other for work. It’s a low wage, polluting, underground economy. Truck drivers can’t afford clean diesel trucks. They can’t afford safe tires. They can’t even afford parking spaces. Some can’t turn off their engines while waiting for fear their trucks won’t start up again.

    The best solution is make the truck drivers employees of their companies and negotiate with the trucking companies for improvements in pollution and traffic management, like they have at the Port of Los Angeles.

  • WSHC November 23, 2009 (1:27 pm)

    We are a peninsula of whiners, it seems.

  • Al November 23, 2009 (2:03 pm)

    This isn’t whining WSHC, it’s a real problem. The amount of traffic that backs up due to the Port not letting trucks enter is huge. There’s simply no where for the trucks who want to enter at this particular Port Entry to wait (of course, they DO have all those empty lanes inside the Port as flynlo pointed out…). There’s only two easy entry points to West Seattle – the lower bridge and the upper bridge. Now, one of those entry/exit points is becoming inaccessible – trucks block the travel lane, intersections, stop on the swing bridge in spite of a huge recently placed sign that says not to and block bike/ped crossings. It completely blocks all street traffic. This will get worse if it’s not fixed by the spring when major construction begins on the approach to the viaduct.

    I did write to the Port to ask them to not open the bridge during rush hour. The vast amount of respondents (including many Port officials) was keep the bridge operating 24/7 in spite of the fact that many other Port cities (on the east cost especially) do have bridge opening restrictions during rush hour. In general, there were surprisingly few responses at all to the Port’s response period. All were available for viewing for a time period during the call for public comment.

  • Jason November 23, 2009 (2:13 pm)

    This has been very annoying lately. If they could just work around those 7am-8:30am commuters like me, we’d all be happy.

  • WSnewbie November 23, 2009 (2:55 pm)

    Well the main reason for this is that the PORT it self will NOT open early or stay up during lunch, they close the whole port down from 12pm-1pm which cause the trucks to back up.

    And the port police really are not trained in traffic flow….

    This is just a bs response.

  • kjk November 23, 2009 (4:08 pm)

    Today at around 1:00pm, I was driving home from S.Park along W. Marginal heading to Admiral Way. I sat at the light near the Chelan for 20 min with out moving.
    Our light never changed green. There were trucks everywhere and the Port Police were managing traffic near the lower bridge. I finally followed 5 other cars through a red light. I will be avoiding that area until this is resolved.

  • :) November 23, 2009 (7:27 pm)

    A lot of this seems to be directed at the port, since everyone likes them as a target. Nice to see a few people know that the city is responsible for spokane street. Additionally, isn’t APL the tenant at Terminal 5?

    For those who zoomed in and saw the waiting lanes, has anyone been down there to see if this gate is open before 8am?

  • GenHillOne November 23, 2009 (8:14 pm)

    I must be missing something…if there are all those lanes down there, why can’t they use them – similar to the Colman ferry dock? They could all still go through one open checkpoint like they do now, but they wouldn’t be blocking the street.

  • Alistair November 24, 2009 (10:37 am)

    This was even worse this morning – a truck tried to shortcut the line by jumping out underneath the bridge, over the rail lines, and using size to force his way into waiting traffic. Irate (justifiably so!) car drivers who’d been waiting for 20 minutes didn’t want to let him get out, then a train turns up….

    Turning left from W Marginal onto the low bridge becomes essentially impossible between about 7:15am and almost 9am. Good job the high bridge is so free of traffic chaos at that time…

    No SPD dealing with the mess on the bridge this am, but out trying to ticket people for speeding on W Marginal… more money and less hassle that way, I guess.

  • WSnewbie November 24, 2009 (11:02 am)

    The City of Seattle could just close down the ramp to Terminal 5 if they wanted too, its the port issue since they will be billed if the city if fined if the bridge can not open since water ways are under federal laws and must be able to open whenever no matter what time of day it is.

    And If I am correct the city of Seattle SDOT has had someone down there the past 3 weeks trying to deal with the truckers and the port of Seattle police.

    I know SDOT has called the city police about the trucks blocking the bridge to issue tickets more then once. One day they really needed help with dealing with the truckers cause a few of them have gotten out of there truck and tired to start something with an SDOT worker and the SDOT worker waited 3 hours and no city police came. Its time to get the police to do their traffic job down there.

  • Lola November 25, 2009 (5:58 am)

    Not only does the traffic get bogged down on the lower bridge but the other day coming into West Seattle all the big trucks were in the right hand lane stopped on the big bridge. I had never seen so many all at once and they were all trying to take that exit down to the lower bridge and Harbor Island.

  • JT November 27, 2009 (12:37 pm)

    The “PORT” does not operate terminal 5. It owns the property but it is operated by Presidents Line. The hours of operation are decided by the Terminal Managers, not buy the Port. The outer fence line gate is opened one hour before the terminal opens and processing begins. A guard at the outer gate checks each driver for proper DHS Identification which will allow him/her access to the facility. The paved area between the fence line and the checker booths will accomodate approximately 65 trucks. Not all of the paved area between the gate and checker booths is utilized for staging because there needs to be enough room to turn a truck around and direct them out of the facility if the driver does not have the proper paperwork or is at the wrong terminal. Once this area is full, the backup onto city streets begins. The drivers get there early so they can quickly drop off one container and go get another…and another… on a good day. They get paid by the container, not by the hour. The Port police and SDOT have been working closely together to limit the traffic congestion until a long term solution can be achieved. I grew up in West Seattle and I recall when one of the bridges was struck by a ship which then left the wesbound bridge stuck open and only the eastbound bridge was operational. The one bridge, with only two lanes was then used for both east and westbound traffic… and there was NO high level bridge. The other day when the bridge tender activated the lights early, this was in an attempt to ensure the trucks on the bridge got off in time and no additional trucks or cars came onto the bridge… One can only imagine the traffic problems if the lower bridge were to be struck and taken out of service for an extended period of time. Big ships don’t stop very fast!

Sorry, comment time is over.