Ballard, Fremont Bridge drivers may get rush hour break

by: Alexis Smith Updated:

The Fremont Bridge in Seattle.

The Ballard and Fremont bridges may no longer be raised during the late afternoon commute if the Seattle Department of Transportation gets their way.

SDOT is asking the U.S. Coast Guard to extend the afternoon rush hour restrictions, and is in the process of drafting the formal letter.

The current rush hour schedule is from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. During those timeframes, boats must wait and bridges are not allowed to open, though there are exceptions for large commercial boats.

However, on most weekdays heavy traffic continues well past the 6 p.m. cutoff and a bridge opening can snarl traffic for miles. If a change in rules is granted, boat traffic will be held longer for thousands of commuters.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard this particular rule has been amended seven times between April 1984 and September 2003. The DOT says overall citywide traffic volumes are trending down since the last time the rush hour rules were updated.

However, according to SDOT's traffic volume maps, more drivers are crossing the ship canal during the workweek. In 2003, an average of 58,400 vehicles crossed the Ballard Bridge each weekday and 31,100 used the Fremont Bridge. In 2011 that jumped to 63,800 for the Ballard Bridge and dropped slightly to 31,000 for the Fremont Bridge.

The rules are negotiated federally with the Coast Guard, and SDOT will have to go through a lengthy proposal process. Documentation must be provided, proving that the extended hours would be worth the negative impact it would have on commercial boat traffic.

Additional traffic counts will be examined along with bridge draw logs and alternative routes for highway and marine traffic.

Steven Fischer, the Bridges Program administrator for the Coast Guard, says he would also have to run a public notice soliciting comments regarding how a rush hour extension of 30-60 minutes would impact marine traffic.

"What I can tell you is that someone will have to wait -- either marine traffic or highway traffic," he said.

SDOT says they are requesting the change based on their own observations and the U.S. Coast Guard's willingness to discuss the matter.

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