The $140 million Lander Street Overpass in Sodo could be a big improvement for biking and walking in Sodo, but only if it done right.
The city has compiled $100 million in grants, partnerships and city funds to put the project on track after many years of pushing by freight interests in the city’s biggest industrial area. And while changes in bridge scale have helped put the price tag a little closer to within reach, those savings came largely by eliminating the bike lanes and moving all biking and walking access to one side.
We can do better.
Lander Street carries only 12,540 vehicles per day (down 24 percent since 2007), but many of those trips are freight trucks. And for freight, time is money. That’s why industrial interests have been pushing for an overpass to get around constant train traffic that stops traffic on Lander for nearly 5 hours cumulatively in an average day (though many of these hours are outside working hours, it’s still a lot of waiting).
But Lander is also one of very few east-west options for people biking and walking in and through Sodo, and it is especially necessary for West Seattle and Duwamish Valley residents. Any major investment in this crossing must prioritize safety and the city’s goals to encourage biking and walking.
“The 2016 Lander Bridge design options as presently proposed, while eliminating conflicts with railroad trains, appear to increase conflicts between bike and motorized vehicles traffic, or between people biking and people walking,” West Seattle Bike Connections’ Don Brubeck wrote in a letter following the first open house on the project (PDF).
People traveling on the south side of the street should not be required to cross Lander twice in order to cross the bridge. Not only do these extra crossings add lots of time to every walking and biking trip, but they needlessly expose people to two additional busy and potentially dangerous crossings. In reality, this design would lead to people walking and biking on the south side of the bridge anyway, an outcome that isn’t good for anyone.
If the city and its partners are investing this much money (the budget for this one bridge is comparable to a decade or so of total bike investments at recent rates), there needs to be a sidewalk and space to bike on each side of the bridge like a normal street. Alternatively, if the city committed to building a protected two-way bike lane on the north side of Lander from 1st Ave S to Airport Way, then all they would need to add is a sidewalk on the south side of the bridge.
The good news is that a better bridge would be very easy to design and might even save money. With only 12,540 vehicles per day and the need to stop for trains eliminated, there’s no reason this bridge needs to have four to five lanes for traffic. Extra lanes might be helpful today to clear backups after train crossings, but things would easily (and safely) flow with one lane in each direction if those train backups are eliminated.
But no matter how they make it happen, walking and biking safety is not negotiable. And the plans as presented aren’t quite there yet.