SDOT reassesses traffic management in wake of "fishgate"

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Rather than be pushed to the side, the fish-filled trailer was left on the road for hours as crews attempted to upright the truck.

To be fair to Seattle’s first responders, how often can you expect a truck full of frozen cod to overturn on one of the city’s main arteries? Still, both Seattle Police Department Assistant Chief, Carmen Best, and Seattle Department of Transportation Director, Scott Kubly, admitted Tuesday that the coordination around "fish-gate" could have been better.

The trailer turned over at 2:30 p.m. on March 24, just below the southbound off-ramp of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, blocking all lanes. The mess, fish and all, took nine hours to clean up.

In a scenario like this, the fire department responds to manage safety, the police handle traffic control and SDOT takes over communication and clean up. But while all the departments agree that safety is the number one priority, there was confusion that day about whether the second priority was managing traffic or protecting property.

This is an important distinction.

A tow truck was called to upright the trailer. When it arrived an hour later (the truck was coming from North Seattle and got stalled in the traffic jam it was traveling to clean up) the driver made four atempts at righting the fish truck. No luck. According to SPD’s Best, the trailer was positioned in such a way that it was impossible to lift it without damaging the roadway.

No, Seattle doesn't need better tow trucks, says Kubly. “The problem wasn’t the equipment on site, but the decision to lift versus push.” Apparently, SPD uses a FEMA-based response protocol called the National Incident Management System, and NIMS puts property first. SDOT has recently switched to the Traffic Incident Management System (TIMS), which gives the edge to unclogging traffic.

“Had traffic been prioritized higher than property,” says Best, “maybe the situation would have come out differently.” After several hours of failing to upright the trailer, crews spent about an hour offloading its frozen fish cargo in an attempt to lighten the load before finally lifting and moving the truck off the road. By then, it was 10:45 p.m.

From here on out, promises Kubly, city departments will use TIMS. Fish-gate would have been resolved much sooner by simply shoving the truck to the side of the road and dealing with the damage later.

The fish trailer incident highlighted another, broader problem with Seattle transportation; namely, its over-reliance on car-centric, north/south travel. “As 99 backed up, that spilled over to I-5, which spilled into downtown,” says Kubly. So what happens when something happens on or to the viaduct? Like, it's forced to close due to earthquake damage or traffic accidents?

In its emergency viaduct closure plan, SDOT says it would need to redirect 26,000 cars (that's during peak hours); 7,000 of those cars, estimates the report, could be rerouted through downtown. But SDOT needs three years to create enough alternative options to accommodate those other 19,000 drivers and/or vehicles. Those options would include more transit and marketing campaigns to encourage off-hour commuting.

But fishgate shows the tenuousness of even the initial 7,000 estimate: during the clean up effort, a Sounders game was already clogging downtown, hindering SDOT’s ability to redirect viaduct traffic through the grid. “We wanted to flush people out of downtown,” says Kubly, “but because of the Sounders game, people were trying to get into downtown.”

The city will review its coordinated response efforts and hire a consultant to advise on better traffic management. Kubly says his agency will also be looking to add more "adaptive traffic lights" in the downtown area, the kind whose timing can be modified (remotely) depending on traffic conditions.

But the best way to fix traffic problems spawned by the likes of fishgate, says Kubly, is to reduce crashes.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.