The neighborhoods of West Seattle have had their own taste of island life — albeit a bitter one — ever since March, when the high-level bridge connecting them to the city was abruptly closed following the discovery of severe cracks in the main span.
Those from Vashon who commute are no strangers to the West Seattle Bridge and have relied on it to get them across the Duwamish Waterway since it opened in 1984. Even with the pandemic forcing many to work from home, the bottleneck that forms as traffic converges at the major intersection approaching West Marginal Way Southwest has increased overall congestion in the area and caught the attention of legislators such as Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who cited the bridge in a speech on the floor of the United States House of Representatives last week to discuss a bill for investing in infrastructure projects.
For its part, the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) has taken steps to keep traffic moving on the arterial streets below the bridge while weighing the costly options for its future that, even if deemed worth repairing, will have to be replaced eventually, falling far short of its once-estimated 35 years of remaining life. As for what’s coming farther down the road for the beleaguered bridge, officials aren’t ruling anything out — while SDOT solicits bids for a new design, some have floated the possibility of constructing a tunnel, an idea that has garnered mixed reactions.
But with the bridge out through at least next year, some islanders are considering how the closure might impact Vashon in the long term.
Anne Higuera is a member of the advisory Community Task Force appointed by SDOT, a group consisting of longtime West Seattle residents, community representatives and elected officials well-known to islanders including Washington State Senator Joe Nguyen and King County Councilmember Joe McDermott. Higuera owns a construction company with her husband based in West Seattle and said her goal on the task force has been to provide transparency and engage various stakeholders such as transit riders, the Vashon business community and neighbors about their concerns.
“There are things that I think are critical for us,” she said in a recent conversation, noting the importance of access to off-island emergency and health care services that many on Vashon depend on.
In an email, Health Care District Commissioner Eric Pryne said that it’s too early to tell whether the bridge closure may influence the decisions Vashon residents make about where they go for off-island health care in the months ahead. However, when islanders were admitted to hospitals in 2018, about 70 to 75% of them traveled to Seattle, Pryne said, information learned while the district worked on a request for proposal in search of a new long-term primary medical care provider for Vashon.
The combined factors of the bridge and Washington State Ferries’ (WSF) two-boat schedule together extend the length of emergency transport time off-island for Vashon Island Fire & Rescue by as much as 30 minutes, said assistant chief Bob Larsen. Emergency vehicles have had to share the Low Bridge with buses and commercial traffic, he said, sometimes holding up crews on their way to the Fauntleroy Dock where they then wait for another boat back to Vashon.
“It is an inconvenience. We still do our best to get people to the hospital in as timely a manner as possible. That’s our mission and that’s what we try and do,” Larsen said, noting that call volume is down from last year.
During the June 24 meeting, the task force approved a plan recommended by SDOT to permit more vehicles to access the previously restricted Low Bridge between the hours of 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. seven days a week.
But in the future, the Low Bridge will not be able to absorb greater traffic demands, said Adiam Emery, a city intelligent transportation system engineer, adding that accessibility for emergency vehicles is paramount.
For general purposes, Higuera said that she hopes decision-makers recognize the importance of ensuring adequate mass transit is available to all so islanders can get where they need to go without driving in West Seattle and further contributing to the congestion problem.
But not everyone will be returning to their offices after the pandemic is over. Some have plans to continue working from home, she said.
“If there really are a substantial number of people who will stay home even when they’re allowed to go into work, it will really change what the demand on the ferries and the buses and everything else is, and hopefully will reduce the number of trips to West Seattle as well,” Higuera said.
And on Vashon, people are looking to keep it local for the foreseeable future: the housing market on the island is booming, real estate agent Ken Zaglin said.
“The expectation that I had is, I thought between COVID-19 and the West Seattle Bridge and the bad news we got on that months ago, that the market would be devastated, and demand is just as high as I’ve ever seen it in my 30-plus year career,” he said, attributing the current market conditions to a sort of “COVID flight” taking place, with many buyers leaving urban centers for safer and less densely populated areas for their families to live.
Moreover, he said, because many companies have since adopted and even embraced work-from-home and telecommuting models in the wake of the pandemic, prospective home buyers are able to broaden their searches.
“I think we’re seeing the benefit of that swing from COVID. People are now able to consider Vashon more so than they would have perhaps two or three years ago,” he said, adding that as the region gradually bounces back, he expects islanders who need to return to the city will inevitably find it more difficult to get there. Zaglin said he was hopeful that King County Water Taxi service direct to downtown, in addition to more companies offering telecommuting work to their employees, will help mitigate some of the potential impacts on daily life from the bridge closure.
Whether they will or not remains to be seen, but Higuera said she is pleased to be a voice for the island in the meantime.
“It’s that access to the city through West Seattle that is really critical for the island for lots of different reasons, and I want to make sure that they don’t make it really hard for us to reach the city,” she said.
However, the coronavirus pandemic has been no help to transportation agencies serving Vashon, or anywhere, across Puget Sound.
With no end in sight, WSF has continued to operate most routes on a reduced, two-boat schedule thanks to significantly lower ridership, curtailed revenue and notably, staffing constraints. More than 100 employees are considered at-risk and unable to sail safely, resulting in a lack of crew members needed to meet U.S. Coast Guard safety requirements according to assistant transportation secretary Amy Scarton in an update shared late last month.
King County Metro has implemented bus service on the island again after suspending all trips for weeks, but the agency expects further system-wide reductions to carry into next year, driven by a revenue shortfall and other funding challenges. Those reductions will coincide with an adjusted schedule to be rolled out in the fall that will see additional cuts and suspensions, slashing about 15% of previous Metro service compared to the number of trips operated before COVID-19 — including for routes 118 and 119 on Vashon.
“We are going to be continuing to watch ridership really more closely than we ever had before to just be fully aware of where and when demand starts to return on [routes] like that. We’re very heavily dependent on the commuter market,” transit managing director Bill Bryant told The Beachcomber during a call with reporters last month.
Then there’s the water taxi. In an interview, councilmember McDermott, who represents Vashon, noted that water taxi service could be strained by the recession, as it is largely supported by property taxes, at a time when demand grows to accommodate more passengers looking to bypass the bridge.
“Augmenting water taxi service for West Seattle and Vashon — preserving existing and augmenting to every degree possible — are very much things that I’m looking to do and that I’m talking to the city about,” he said, adding that he hopes SDOT acts urgently to either repair or replace the West Seattle Bridge when the time comes to choose. “Because it’s pretty crippling for every point west of the Duwamish.”