The Lower Spokane Street Bridge access dilemma

Jan 19, 2021, 4:58 AM | Updated: 6:46 am
lower spokane street bridge, west seattle...
West Seattle Low Bridge in October 2020. (SDOT/Flickr)

Who gets to use the Lower Spokane Street Bridge during the emergency closure of the high bridge continues to be an issue for West Seattle residents who say they need the access for work.

I received a text from a listener last week, a nurse who lives in West Seattle. This nurse is on-call and needs to make rush trips to First Hill for emergency surgeries and procedures. This nurse, like every other emergency health care worker, has to go the long way around to make it to the hospital.

Health care workers, even those on-call, do not have the authority to use the Lower Spokane Street Bridge, which is the fastest and only direct route from West Seattle to downtown Seattle.

Right now, use of the low bridge is restricted to emergency vehicles, transit, freight, vanpools, employer shuttles and a handful of people, like port workers and West Seattle businesses. The goal is to keep that low bridge as free of congestion as possible, and, as we discussed last week, photo enforcement is now active to ticket drivers using the bridge between 5 a.m. and 9 p.m.

So what’s the plan going forward?

The Seattle Department of Transportation’s Meghan Shepard told the West Seattle Bridge Community Task Force that the bridge can only handle 400-450 vehicles an hour in the morning. After 10 a.m., that drops to about 300 vehicles an hour because of the freight traffic and bridge lifts.

Shepard said there is only room for an additional 450 total trips a day of capacity available.

“By starting conservatively, we’re in the best position right now to be able to make data-driven decisions about providing access, with the hope of being able to expand to additional users and that we will not have to revoke or restrict,” she said.

Getting emergency health care workers access to the low bridge is the next priority, and Shepard said the few people who have access now better not abuse the privilege.

“This is not for commuting,” she said. “This is not for regular travel you can plan. Using the low bridge is for when you have to use the low bridge to do something urgent or time sensitive to support your business.”

There is also a push to add health care patients to the exempt list. King County Councilmember Joe McDermott raised this issue before the task force.

“Has there been conversation about individuals using the bridge for scheduled and vital appointments, perhaps cancer patients going to regular chemotherapy or radiation appointments?” he asked.

McDermott believes that patients’ trips are just as necessary as a business picking up supplies.

“I don’t want to come off as anti-business, but I do need to underline my emphasis and concern for residents in West Seattle seeking medical attention and making sure that we’re about a broader audience,” he said.

So it’s back to a discussion of who is more deserving or more needy of a faster trip on the low bridge. The one known in this equation is that there is little extra capacity throughout the day.

Another issue is the re-opening of Terminal 5 in June, which is going to add a lot more freight trips to the corridor.

But to answer our listener’s question: Finding a way to add health care workers, especially those on-call, to the low bridge exempt list is a priority for the city, and it is working on the problem.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.


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The Lower Spokane Street Bridge access dilemma