Bridges are tying Seattle in knotty questions

Crosscut archive image.

The Aurora Bridge, seen from the Fremont Bridge.

Bridges are spanning the news cycles lately.

It’s a timely trend because, as you probably didn’t know, October is “Bridge Month” at the Washington State archives. The month celebrates the legacy of the state’s amazing bridges where a multitude of creative spans have played a central role in us becoming what we are. Indeed, we’re famous for our bridge successes (Seattle is the world capital of floating bridges) and colossal failures (Galloping Gertie—the video just never gets old).

But back to the news.

The Aurora Bridge, post the fatal Duck-hits-bus accident, is a major topic: narrow lanes, no lane barriers. Were we fiddling while hazards worsened? How did we let the city outgrow its capacity? Should amphibious vehicles, operated by Ride the Ducks, even be on the thing? Aren’t the Ducks supposed to get where they’re going without bridges? Isn’t that the point?

We thought we solved the longstanding problem of the Aurora Bridge as a suicide platform, but bridge safety proposals were back-burnered. We apparently took our eye off the problem of the bridge being a potential accident waiting to happen for drivers and passengers.

Bridges also are part of the nearly $1 billion-ballot measure, Move Seattle. According to the Seattle Times, more than 40 percent of the proposed spending by the Seattle Department of Transportation is supposed to go to street and bridge maintenance, including strengthening more car and pedestrian bridges than you ever assumed needed strengthening.

Also, coming up on the ballot in 2016 will be I-123, the Park My Viaduct proposal to study turning a mile-long stretch of the Alaskan Way Viaduct into an elevated park. The Viaduct—a bridge—is slated for demolition—and it’s rare that we bring a bridge down like that. Tunnels are more in vogue now, and those who proposed a tunnel option in the 1940s when the Viaduct was first planned (like architect Paul Thiry) were ignored because elevated concrete highways were in vogue. The idea that the ruins of the Viaduct could be turned into a park has an appeal for some, and the Bertha delay and the slowdown of the waterfront makeover have given some people time to think and push for alternatives.

Our floating bridges are also making news. Highway 520 is beginning to take shape in Montlake as the bigger, wider mega-bridge plans to plow its way into Seattle gridlock. I-90 is in the mix for tolls and discussions about the light-rail line that will link Seattle and Redmond.

A Crosscut story on a series of Tweets about a transportation meeting on Mercer Island went viral recently as island citizens demanded special single occupancy vehicle access to HOV lanes, an exemption from paying tolls. No surprise. Mercer Islanders have flexed their expectation of privilege before, such as when they demanded a lid for the I-90 freeway expansion. They got it, begrudgingly—a good thing, too. Otherwise, they would have been left with a miserable trench dividing the island. The state, however, balked at doing the same for the folks in the Central District in Seattle, but a city commission eventually said, if Mercer Island gets a lid, we get a lid. The freeway builders had to cave, and the CD got a great new park and bike access via a dedicated tunnel through Mount Baker. So, privilege has its privileges, if everyone gets to share in the privilege.

One last bridge story on my radar is the proposal from SDOT to limit the openings of the drawbridges across the Lake Washington Ship Canal, the watery equivalent to Seattle’s Mason-Dixon line. The rationale is simple: Traffic-choked Seattle is experiencing ever-longer commutes, each bridge opening produces back-ups that take longer to clear. With the exception of peak commute times, recreational boaters can show up, toot their horns and expect to be let through. The idea makes practical sense.

Crosscut archive image.
The Montlake Bridge: its openings have long been a part of life in Seattle. Library of Congress.

But in many respects, living in Seattle shouldn’t make practical sense. We built the city on terrain unfit for a city, and it will always challenge us, especially as we grow. SDOT thinks nothing of choking the city off to accommodate developers and big projects, nor coming up with solutions that make things worse (think the Mercer Mess “fix.”) We continue to expand roadways when we know that’s not sustainable. Having barriers we have to move around—or that become an exercise in patience—is not all a bad thing.

There’s something in me that likes the idea that we live in a city that can be brought to a stop by pleasure boaters. Annoying, sometimes, back-up inducing, yes. But we can do worse than turn off the engine, watch the scenery and enjoy a few moments of enforced moments of calm during the day. Get out of your car, you might see a kingfisher or a cormorant or a kayaker defying the 9-to-5 way of life.

Think of a drawbridge opening as a tax you pay for being in a city which is one of the best places to own a boat in America, a city that occasionally asks you to relax for a few minutes.

Something to contemplate during Bridge Month.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.