By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Two months after enforcement cameras switched on, and one month after the port’s announcement that Terminal 5 won’t open until next year, SDOT is still keeping West Seattle low-bridge access tightly restricted.
There’s been only one recent change – allowing on-call health-care providers to use it. A few other loosenings are under consideration, but still at least a month away, the West Seattle Bridge Community Task Force was told today, at a meeting that began with news of a high-bridge repair-planning milestone (we covered that separately here). An intense discussion ensued (see it here on video), with some members of the task force telling SDOT staff that changes should be made sooner.
First, SDOT’s bridge-project leader Heather Marx< showed traffic-volume changes on the low bridge since enforcement began:
She hailed “a consistent decline” since implementing enforcement, declaring it was “exactly the kind of volume trend we were hoping to see.” Overall, even factoring in the traffic they expect once Terminal 5 reopens for cargo next year, most dayparts are nowhere near maxing out the low bridge. Below, for example, are westbound volumes – the red line represents maximum capacity, the gray parts of the bars show expected T-5 traffic, and the rest of the bars show actual current use.
Eastbound, though, had a few maxed-out areas, when the future T-5 traffic is added:
Right now, Marx said, they’re still currently gathering information from “community members that we haven’t heard from” and expect an update at next month’s CTF meeting. Once they announce changes, Marx said, they hope not to change again until T-5 is ready to open, feeling that would “confuse people.”
The major change for which task-force members are, and have been, advocating, would be granting access to people who have to cross the river for life-saving medical treatment. County Councilmember Joe McDermott spoke passionately about it at last month’s WSBCTF meeting and did so again today. The city has addressed business/organization needs, but also needs to address individuals’ needs too.
Marx said one thing getting in the way is trying to get information from medical institutions that are also currently caught up in the pandemic.
Task-force member Deb Barker from the West Seattle Transportation Coalition added her support but said that April isn’t soon enough. Maybe it could be announced by the one-year anniversary of the bridge closure on March 23rd, she suggested: “People are dying out there, and it would be nice to get them to their treatment quicker.”
Dan Austin from the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce, who is on the task force’s low-bridge subcommittee, said, “We have been working on this” but also agrees the pace of change needs to be faster. He noted that with the traffic-volume data showing low-bridge usage is down thousands of trips available daily, this change should be possible.
City Councilmember Lisa Herbold wanted to know more about the barriers to allowing patients the same access as providers, getting citations canceled. Also, she said, the bridge has capacity Saturday and Sunday mornings, so why not open it up to everyone then? She said SDOT’s been telling people they’re considering weekend-morning access (though it hadn’t been mentioned at this meeting until she brought it up), so what’s the status for that change? Marx repeated that they’re looking for “input from community members we don’t often hear from.” Herbold pressed, what does that mean? Who do you need to talk to who you havent already spoken with? Marx didnt answer that directly but replied, “We’ve heard from the community that it’s confusing when we make too many changes” so they’re hoping to bundle those changes. What they’re seeking from the medical community is, “some kind of a way to understand the size of the population we’re taking about.” The system they have set up for the on-call medical providers to get citations canceled doesn’t work so well, she added. “We have to administer this and it’s much more complicated than one might imagine. … Is it 10 people? Is it 10,000 people? … We are working as quickly and diligently as we can.”
Georgetown’s John Persak said he’s disturbed by the concept of “pitting community members against each other for a finite resource.” He said SDOT’s estimates of low-bridge capacity are “conservative” and would like to see that evaluated and potentially adjusted: “I think everybody can be accommodated.” Marx retorted, “It’s a finite resource and shaving around the ages isn’t going to change that.”
Task-force member and advocate for visually challenged people Marci Carpenter noted that life-saving treatments can include mental health as well as physical health, so SDOT would have to be careful about defining who would be eligible for that access.
Seattle Port Commissioner Peter Steinbrueck echoed that they should be able to accommodate more weekend traffic on the bridge. Maybe some shift schedules at the port could be shifted. (Persak later said that terminal operators have flexibility for weekend operations, to “open the gate,” so perhaps the city could talk to terminal operators and create some relief on bridge traffic.)
Diane Sosne from SEIU Healthcare 1199 said perhaps a public announcement of patient access for iife-saving treatment could be made and the city could wait to see how many people take advantage of that access: “I think realistically that’s the only way we’re going to know, put a call out.”
Lora Radford of the West Seattle Junction Association, who’s also on the low-bridge subcommittee, suggested just creating a limited number of spots for the access, and once they’re filled up, that’s it, rather than trying first to figure out how many people might be eligible and working backward from there.
SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe said they’re working to be sure they can balance everything. But he echoed Marx in saying that the city has heard a “lot of confusion” and wants to be respectful of that. “It’s just very, very challenging” to create and maintain the policy while ensuring that emergency access is not compromised.
In the end, it did not appear likely that anything will change before the task force’s next meeting, 4 pm April 8th.