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Why are they opening the bridge NOW?


We are often asked why drivers are forced to wait for sailboats passing under the Fremont, Ballard, and other bridges. While one or a few boats or ships pass through, hundreds of drivers sit in their idling cars losing time waiting and sending huge amounts of exhaust into the air.  Drivers also frequently ask why the openings aren’t limited or why doesn’t the city make several boats wait and go through as a group?

John Buswell, SDOT’s Roadway Structures Manager, agrees that it can be frustrating to wait the four to six minutes, on average, that it takes to complete an opening of a bridge on the Lake Washington Ship Canal.  However, Federal Law gives marine vessels the right-of-way over vehicular traffic. The City of Seattle must apply to the U.S. Coast Guard for exceptions to that rule.  The Coast Guard permit that allows us to have a movable bridge across the Ship Canal, a navigable waterway, states that the City must open the bridge for any vessel that makes a request for an opening. Buswell explains that, “Seattle was successful in getting an exception to this during the morning and afternoon rush hours – weekdays from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. We do not open for smaller vessels during these hours, however, we must open the bridges for vessels of 1000 gross tons or larger.”

He adds that whenever possible, the bridge operators will hold one vessel while waiting for other vessels to approach.  However, the Coast Guard rules only allow us to delay a vessel for up to ten minutes.

As for all those motorists sitting and idling while a bridge is open for marine traffic, SDOT recommends, and has installed signs at bridges informing motorists, to turn off their vehicle engines during a bridge opening to minimize vehicle exhaust emissions. Not only does this reduce pollution, but motorists save gas and money that way.

SDOT operates the Ballard Bridge, the Fremont Bridge and the University Bridge on the Lake Washington Ship Canal.  The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) operates the Montlake Bridge.  On the Duwamish River, SDOT operates the Spokane Street Swing Bridge, and WSDOT operates the First Avenue South Bridge.