Transportation officials have worried for years about driver safety on the narrow Aurora Bridge, where six traffic lanes are divided by two yellow stripes.
In fact, it is the tightest six-lane highway bridge in the state, some 4 1/2 feet leaner than any of its peers, according to a Seattle Times analysis of federal records. It also lacks a median divider, a feature on most comparable bridges in the state.
Despite previous warnings, the state has never spent the money to solve the crowding.
Concerned about crossover crashes like the one Thursday between a Ride the Ducks amphibious vehicle and a charter bus from Ferndale-based Bellair that killed four people, the Washington State Transportation Department considered building barriers on the Aurora Bridge in 2003.
The study noted that the bridge’s narrow lanes posed risks and that the lack of a center barrier to separate cars often traveling faster than the speed limit, “increases the risk for crossover/head on traffic accidents.”
Engineers found the bridge “will not allow any additional weight loading,” which ruled out widening the whole deck. Instead, they recommended building new sidewalks below the road deck, to allow wider car lanes and a 2-foot-wide barrier above, at a cost of $29 million.
That recommendation was never pursued.
Thursday’s tragedy has renewed discussion about how to improve safety along a corridor that carries some 58,000 cars a day.
“It hasn’t risen to the level of an organized effort,” said state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle. “You can’t help but give the honor of reconsidering the issues from a safety perspective.”
He’s not yet proposing specific changes, which he said must be based on further study.
In the last 10 years, there were 142 crashes and 63 injuries on the bridge, Carlyle says the city told him Thursday.
Seattle Transportation Director Scott Kubly said at a Thursday evening news conference that his department’s first priority was to reroute traffic around the scene and get the transportation system moving again. But he said safety issues will be on the agenda.
“That is definitely something we’re going to be taking a good hard look at in the coming days and weeks,” Kubly said.
The 9 1/2 -foot-wide lanes on the bridge are barely enough to contain some vehicles. King County Metro Transit buses are 8 1/2 -feet wide, while a Duck boat or a container truck takes slightly more than 8 feet, not counting their mirrors.
“I remember being told in training that the Duck would fit in a lane, but that if you felt safer, to go ahead and straddle over the line some,” a former tour driver told The Seattle Times. “Most drivers stayed in the far-right lanes, never passed on the bridge.”
The federal government has width data on 47 highway bridges in Washington state that have six lanes and carry traffic in two directions. The Aurora Bridge is the narrowest by far. The next narrowest — a Highway 99 bridge over North 63rd Street near Green Lake — is 4 1/2 -feet wider and has a small median curb.
At less than 57 feet wide, the Aurora Bridge is 10 feet narrower than a typical state bridge that would have just four lanes.
While the state hasn’t added median barriers or widened lanes, it has improved other aspects of the bridge’s safety:
▪ In 2005, concrete barriers were anchored onto the sidewalks, to protect pedestrians. This was also meant to reduce incidents where a truck or car jumps the curb.
Those changes came after a notorious incident in 1998, when a deranged man fatally shot Metro Transit driver Mark McLaughlin, whose bus then swerved across oncoming traffic and off the bridge. The bus landed in the front yard of an apartment building. One passenger died and the shooter killed himself.
▪ A suicide-prevention fence was built in 2011 for $6 million after years of requests from the community and WSDOT. About 230 people died jumping off the bridge before the project, advocates said.
▪ Seismic strengthening was completed for $10 million in 2013.
Carlyle said he’s not sure why the barrier idea on the bridge lost traction.
Another concept would be to reduce the bridge to four normal-width lanes with a barrier — the city often undergoes “road diets” that convert hazardous four-lane streets to two lanes plus a center turn area.