Proposed lane-reduction project in West Seattle stirs concern
December 9, 2008 · 6:46 PM
A plan to reconfigure Fauntleroy Way S.W. in West Seattle from four lanes to three is stirring a debate on Vashon, with some Islanders concerned it could lead to huge ferry-related traffic snarls while others say they’re encouraged by the pro-cyclist move.
Last week, the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council (VMICC) sent a letter to Mayor Greg Nickels, stating that though it supports bicyclists, the council believes the change could harm the ferry-dependent community, leading Islanders to miss ferries, be late to work or rearrange their days to avoid doing so.
“Hampering the flow of vehicles along this critical arterial by reducing lanes is not the right answer,” the letter states.
Some Islanders disagree, however, and think the proposal could be better for motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians.
The council will discuss the letter at its Dec. 15 meeting to find out if the statement it made “on behalf of Vashon Island residents” truly represents their sentiments on the proposed change to Fauntleroy Way, which connects the West Seattle ferry dock with I-5 and I-90. If those in attendance disagree with statements made in the letter, the council will rescind it, officials said.
Seattle plans to repave Fauntleroy Way next spring and has proposed “rechanneling” a section of the four-lane road — which carries about 19,000 motorists each day — at that time. From S.W. Alaska Street to California Avenue S.W., Fauntleroy would have one lane in each direction, a bidirectional turning lane in the middle and room for bicyclists on either side.
The hope of the reconfiguration is “to squeeze in bicycle facilities without negatively impacting vehicle traffic on Fauntleroy,” said Eric Widstram, Seattle’s acting city traffic engineer and manager of traffic operations.
The restriping could improve pedestrian crossings and reduce speeding, rear-end collisions, sideswipes and moving vehicles hitting parked cars, he said.
He added that the city could retime traffic lights to accommodate rush-hour and ferry traffic and expected that would keep travel times the same.
Liz Otis, a member of VMICC’s transportation committee who helped draft the letter sent to Nickels, disagrees. She said reconfiguring the road could increase congestion and delays on the thoroughfare.
“You don’t want to create situations where people get frustrated, because when they get frustrated they do stupid things,” Otis said. “The city doesn’t want to set something up where people will be getting frustrated.”
She added that increased congestion on Fauntleroy would contribute to air pollution in the neighborhood as well as cause some drivers to cut through side streets in an effort to circumvent Fauntleroy traffic.
“I think you have congestion every time you have a light,” Otis said of the arterial. “You’re going to have the surge traffic from every ferry building up at every light unless you have the four lanes to dissipate it.”
Vickie Mercer, a fellow member of the transportation committee, said the conditions on Fauntleroy are already bad at times.
“I have seen the backups at Alaska Street as a result of the West Seattle traffic being half a mile long — even with four lanes,” she said. “What will it do with two lanes?”
She’s also concerned that the proposed reconfiguration of the road may make it difficult for buses to pull out of bus stops and back into traffic. This could delay buses, making it difficult for their passengers to make ferry connections, she added.
Widstram noted that motorists are required by law to yield to buses entering traffic, though sometimes they do not.
Though the community council’s letter opposing this plan was endorsed by the board, it was sent off without public discussion to meet a tight public comment deadline from the Seattle Department of Transportation.
Some Islanders are unhappy that a letter was sent to Nickels without their knowledge or input.
“I don’t think it’s fair to put a letter out from the people of Vashon that hasn’t been debated with the proper process,” said Henry Haselton. “I think it would be more fair to be silent on that if there’s no conclusion.”
Haselton has commuted on his bicycle from the Fauntleroy ferry terminal to downtown Seattle four times a week for the past eight years. He’s one of few cyclists who travel along the arterial — it’s a “harrowing experience,” he said.
Many of the cyclists he knows who commute from Vashon either go up California Avenue or around Alki to avoid Fauntleroy, Haselton said.
“Most people think I’m nuts for riding there,” he said.
The section of Fauntleroy that could be restriped is “by far the most dangerous stretch of the commute,” he said. Reconfiguring lanes there would definitely increase safety for bicyclists, he said — and cars.
“Right now there’s two lanes of traffic up against parked cars and basically no room for bicycles,” Haselton said. “If you have two cars going abreast when you’re riding your bike around a corner and especially if it’s dark, you have to time how you attack the S-curves between slugs of traffic.”
He added that he believed the city of Seattle had carefully researched the area and its traffic issues before making the proposal to restripe a portion of Fauntleroy, while some Islanders may have made snap judgments against the plan without learning much about it.
Fellow cyclist Steve Abel commuted through West Seattle for many years, though he’s now semi-
retired. He rode on Fauntleroy only until California Avenue, “and then took back streets because Fauntleroy was far too dangerous,” he said.
He supports the city’s restriping plan not only because he cycles, but because he believes the change could make the area safer, he said.
Fauntleroy “was built with a streetcar in the middle and was never intended to be a freeway,” he said. “I think that Fauntleroy Way is far too narrow to have four lanes of traffic plus two lanes of parked cars. The big S-curve with four cars abreast going 40 miles per hour is insane.”
The Seattle Department of Transportation is still accepting feedback about the project, Widstram said, and plans to make its decision by the end of the year.
So far, the comments it received, including those heard at a Dec. 1 forum on the proposal, are “evenly split,” he said.
Commuters are concerned about delays and congestion, he said, and wonder “why the city would increase traffic for a small number of bicyclists.” On the other hand, cyclists and Fauntleroy residents have responded that they’d appreciate slower traffic and improved pedestrian and bike access.
The city reached out to Vashon residents, sending a postcard about the Fauntleroy project to every Island address, though less than a dozen Islanders attended its Dec. 1 meeting on the proposal, Otis said.
“If you don’t do anything, Seattle is marching forward,” she said. “Come May, they’re going to go forward with it.”