City’s layout can put Seattle one crash away from gridlock
The 6-hour, miles-long traffic backup Tuesday had some commuters and Mariners fans asking what the city can do to avoid similar jams. Not much, say police, who closed the road to investigate a serious injury accident.
Seattle Times staff reporters
How could one accident south of the West Seattle Bridge, serious as it was, close a major arterial for almost six hours and so thoroughly jam up traffic around the city that people were still seething the next day?
More to the point: Couldn’t somebody — the police, the transportation department, the mayor — have done something to ease the gridlock?
That’s what many people were asking Wednesday.
At a City Hall news conference, Mayor Ed Murray said traffic investigations and road closures are part of living in any city. Police-department decisions, he said, must be made for reasons of public safety, not because people are frustrated in traffic.
“The most important thing is to make sure people are safe,” Murray said.
The two-vehicle crash Tuesday afternoon prompted police to close the Battery Street Tunnel. On a Mariners game day, it was the second huge traffic jam since May 29, when state officials say a truck yanked a steel plate loose from the deck of Interstate 5, reinforcing the sense that on any given day, Seattle traffic is on the brink.
Seattle’s transportation department says the city’s layout works against us. There simply aren’t many north-south options.
“Once we have a failure on Interstate 5 or State Route 99, there is no silver-bullet solution. There just isn’t sufficient capacity on any of the area’s surface streets,” said Richard Sheridan, spokesman for the Seattle Department of Transportation. “At some point all we can do is ask people to please, if they can delay their trip, do so, and try not to join the congestion.”
The police, for their part, reject suggestions that a fleet of officers could have been dispatched to improve traffic flow with quickly created detours or by waving people through intersections.
Capt. Ken Hicks, acting captain of the Police Department’s traffic unit, said the city does not have a “warehouse of extra traffic cops.”
As for the notion of letting drivers squeeze past the crash investigators,“ You absolutely do not get the scene cleared faster if you are allowing traffic through,” Hicks said.
Furthermore, “I am not going to take the chance that one person who is in a rush is going to swing between the cones and kill a detective.”
The two-car crash occurred around 1:45 p.m. on East Marginal Way South near South Nevada Street, when a driver heading north crossed the centerline and hit a southbound vehicle, according to officials.
One man was critically injured and had to be cut from his vehicle, according to the Fire Department. The driver and passenger of the second vehicle were also hurt, one seriously.
Southbound Highway 99 did not reopen until about 8 p.m.
Police say serious collisions need to be investigated with painstaking thoroughness, for many reasons, including justice, accountability and the possibility of lawsuits against the people involved or the city.
And because an injury accident can turn into a fatal accident depending on how patients fare, police have to investigate as if it were a potential homicide scene, Hicks said.
“We have to preserve the whole scene because we never know what is going to happen,” he said. “I know that because of the (Mariners) game and the tunnel construction, it turned into a day from hell as far as traffic was concerned, but there was nothing else we could do.”
Maan Sidhu, a traffic engineer with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), said decisions about detours are made entirely by police, without direction from the state.
Traffic from the North End was detoured at Denny Way, but Interbay traffic was allowed onto the Alaskan Way Viaduct at Elliott Avenue, and allowed off at the Atlantic Street exit in Sodo, the West Seattle Blog said.
Before that exit was completed, WSDOT was unwilling to detour all viaduct traffic there during construction closures, for fear of rear-end crashes. But that option is more available now, with help from electronic-message signs, the agency says.
“I think we could probably have found ways to keep traffic moving (Tuesday),” said Travis Phelps, spokesman for WSDOT. “There are things that transportation departments can do to recommend decisions on traffic control.”
The city used social media and message boards aggressively Tuesday to give commuters and other drivers a heads up on the situation and to propose potential alternatives, but there was only so much that could be done, Sheridan said.
Still, said Murray, the city probably could do a better job of putting out real-time information.
“We can do this better,” said Murray, who noted he was among those stuck on the road Tuesday.
State Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson said a briefing is planned between WSDOT and Seattle staff about Tuesday’s response and the delays.
“We’re going to move forward after that, to see if there are any gaps in our protocols,” she said. “How do we work with our partners to bring down the response time?”
Eight years ago, Doug MacDonald, WSDOT’s secretary at the time, openly complained that a five-hour closure of northbound I-5, after a sheriff’s deputy fatally shot a man near the Albro-Swift exit, was “unacceptable” in length, and ways needed to be found to minimize delays.
WSDOT and State Patrol have since negotiated guidelines on how they would work together after crashes and other incidents.
Christine Clarridge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8983. Staff reporter Lynn Thompson contributed to this report.