West Seattle Bridge opens after closure lasting more than 2 years

With more than a few honks and waves, eager drivers returned to the reopened high-level West Seattle Bridge late Saturday, after an emergency closure for repairs that lasted 2 ½ years.

The Seattle Department of Transportation announced at 9:15 p.m. that it removed the barricades at most entrances, itself a sensitive operation that required smart timing, to protect workers and potential trespassers from being hit.

The four-minute trip between the peninsula and I-5 was a novelty for people accustomed to detouring as far as six miles.

“It was incredible. It felt like freedom, it was emotional,” said Janelle Bracken, who made a round-trip, then joined a group of people who waved from the walk-bike overpass crossing Fauntleroy Way Southwest, more typically a place for sign-hoisting politicians to greet bridge traffic. Drivers beneath blinked their headlights and tooted their horns. Others on the walk bridge said they’re looking forward to a less-stressful and more predictable commute.

SDOT closed the span March 23, 2020 because cracks discovered seven years earlier were beginning to accelerate at a dangerous pace, in four areas within the 150-foot-high central main span.

Stabilization and strengthening work, at a cost of up to $78 million, is expected to keep the concrete structure aloft until about 2060. And drivers will no longer need to travel an extra 30 to 60 minutes, through the Duwamish River valley highways or streets.

This is the busiest city-owned bridge, carrying about 100,000 vehicles and nearly 20,000 transit riders before the pandemic and shutdown.

The resumption of traffic on the bridge came hours before what had been announced as a Sunday opening. The city had not planned a formal opening ceremony and had kept the time a secret, worried that lines of cars would form, with drivers seeking bragging rights about being among the first to cross the repaired bridge.

The first stalled car was reported an hour after reopening, near the First Avenue South Bridge exit.

The refurbished bridge route contains multiple signs to help drivers navigate toward the Vashon Island and Southworth ferries, and a new electronic sign eastbound that simply read “West Seattle Bridge Open.” Traffic at 10:35 p.m. was lighter than a normal Saturday night and largely obeying the 40- to 45-mph limits, except a Subaru driver who tailgated two others and sped past Nucor Steel mill.

King County Metro Transit buses that traveled the lower swing bridge will return to their red bus lane on the highrise bridge Monday morning.

New, reflective markers make most lanes easier to follow, though the westbound layout looked confusing at one spot near the Harbor Island exit, because of uneven lighting and a dearth of signs.

For some West Seattleites, the easier reconnection with the rest of the city put them in a mood to party like it’s 1984.

That’s the year the bridge opened, giving the peninsula its first-ever grade-separated transportation mainline — unfettered by railroad tracks and the vagaries of ship traffic — after decades of reliance on ferries, streetcar trestles, and drawbridges. The West Seattle Herald weekly newspaper printed an unprecedented 104-page special section, “Bridging the Gap.”

The neighborhood underwent predicted growth in traffic and home values, which made the grand traffic opening a more transformative event than the 2022 reopening, West Seattle historian Clay Eals said last week.

On Saturday, a friendly, low-key greeting set the stage for easier commutes ahead: “Welcome Back” read placards put out by the Transit Riders Union’s “transit fairy,” Pauline Van Senus, near a bus stop on California Avenue Southwest. A couple blocks north at O’Neill Plumbing, a 105-year-old local business, a calendar-shaped sidewalk sign titled Bridge Opening Day proclaimed, “On Your Mark, Get Set…Go!”

Read more about what went wrong and the repairs made; expectations for traffic; and plans for the bridge’s eventual replacement.

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