520 Bridge Trail on for autumn opening + WSDOT will not fix jarring expansion plates

A trail over the 520 Bridge will revolutionize biking in the region. Bicycle travel times between many parts of Seattle and major Eastside communities will be slashed. Biking from UW to downtown Kirkland, for example, will be cut in half. Instead of an hour and a half (including some serious hills), the 520 Bridge Trail will allow people to casually make the trip in just 45 relatively flat minutes.

Not everyone has three hours a day to spend commuting. But an hour and a half? That’s comparable to taking the bus or driving on a bad traffic day. But it will be more reliable, much cheaper and a hell of a lot more fun to bike.

But you’ll have to keep being patient, since WSDOT has not yet announced an opening date for the trail.

“We’re still anticipating a bike path opening date sometime in the fall,” said project spokesperson Emily Durante. “We should have a better understanding of that timeline as we get closer to switching westbound vehicles onto the new structure later this summer.”

For a while after it first opens, the trail will dump people onto Montlake neighborhood streets. The grand plan to connect the trail to the Arboretum, UW, Portage Bay, the Montlake business district and, eventually, Roanoke Park on Capitol Hill still needs some work. It could be a decade before those plans are all constructed, since the Portage Bay Bridge is not scheduled to start its six years of work until 2020 at the earliest, and a second Montlake Bridge isn’t scheduled to open until 2027 or later (PDF factsheet).

WSDOT won’t fix jarring expansion gaps before the trail opens

The trail attached to this $4.56 billion highway project does have one potentially serious problem: The plates covering every expansion gap are just jarring enough that I (and several readers who have contacted me) are worried some people will crash.

I’m aware this is going to seem nitpicky. If you look at the photo above, the plate covering the expansion gap doesn’t seem like much of an issue. And that’s part of the problem.

The expansion gap covers are a bit too jarring, especially since the rest of the trail is so smooth.

When I took my first test ride of the dead-end trail almost a year ago, I almost crashed when I hit the first plate. The trail is so new and smooth, I was sitting back with a comfortable grip on my handlebars looking out over the lake. When I hit the first plate, it packed a bigger punch than I was expecting, and I was barely able to keep my grip on the bars to keep from crashing. It feels like hitting a pothole.

Here’s what I wrote in July 2016:

But since WSDOT has a whole year before this trail opens for real, we do have one nitpick suggestion: The expansion joint covers are a bit too jarring. I can imagine people crashing when they hit the first bump, largely because the rest of the trail is just so smooth that they may not expect such a big bump. It surprised me when I hit the first one. Making the ramp up for each bump more gradual would go a long way.

I’m not the only person who has this concern. Carl, a reader who had not previously read my post about the bridge, wrote me an email recently saying the same thing: “Each time you ride across one of these joints you encounter a bump so harsh that you might be in danger of falling if you are not paying close attention and are not perfectly aligned.”

Carl also contacted WSDOT about the problem several times, but was rebuffed.

WSDOT confirmed that the agency has no plans to do anything about the plates other than to post a warning sign about them, saying “they are compliant with ADA and contract standards.” Carl noted that the plates appear to be designed basically to the ADA maximum allowed for bumps.

The trail plates appear to be engineered to the maximum level of bumpiness allowed under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

So while they may be technically compliant, they are as abruptly bumpy as legally possible. Here’s the full statement from Durante:

We’ve worked with our engineering team to evaluate options that ensure functionality and the safety of those enjoying the new path. To help ensure safety and alert bicyclists of the raised plates, we’re in the process of installing signage and warning paint to alert all users of the raised plates along the path.

The path design is based on structural requirements for the floating bridge and has to balance these requirements with the needs of the many different users who use the bridge. The need for the raised plates is to provide coverage over the open expansion joint. The plates are also designed to support the load of our large under-bridge inspection trucks. The engineering team has evaluated the joints to ensure that they are compliant with ADA and contract standards.

When the West Approach Bridge North opens to bicycles/pedestrians this fall and completes the path into/out of Seattle, riders will see similar, but lower profile expansion joint covers on the 1.2-mile stretch from the floating bridge to Montlake.

I just find it hard to believe that this major project can’t find some way to minimize this hazard in the months before it opens. If the rise of the plate edges were just barely more gradual, there would be no problem at all. I bet they could even attach a simple fix to the existing plates (a cover that has a more gradual profile, for example). For a $4.56 billion project, WSDOT should be aiming higher than the absolute bare minimum allowed by ADA code.

I want to make sure that when this trail opens, all of the talk is about all the amazing new walking and biking connections it enables. I don’t want the story to be about people crashing on our brand new bridge. This would be such a silly and avoidable reason for someone to be injured (or worse).

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20 Responses to 520 Bridge Trail on for autumn opening + WSDOT will not fix jarring expansion plates

  1. Gary Anderson says:

    Really, they aren’t going to fix the expansion joints? They’ve known since the trail opened that they are a problem. Much, much worse than those on the I-90 bridge. Rather that spend the money on signs and paint why don’t they just fix the damn joints! At this point only the curious have probably ridden the path and provided feedback. Just wait until the heavier traffic starts. What percentage of the $4.56B would it take to fix the problem? Argh….

    Maybe it’s time to call the governor.

    • Gary Anderson says:
    • Dan says:

      Maybe we should outfit a team with orange vests and an angle grinder and go make the plates a little more accessible outselves.

    • Alkibkr says:

      Great idea, I sent him a message, too. Let’s all do it.

      I think some grooved mats could be engineered to lay over these joints to alleviate the problem (which sounds like it may also a potential tripping hazard for pedestrians). Installing warning signs just indicates that WSDOT is aware there is a safety problem which they never should have created in the first place.

      • R says:

        When the government is aware of problems in infrastructure, has the opportunity to fix them, and does not then they are liable for consequences. Perhaps WSDOT needs to be reminded of the implications of O’Neill v. City of Port Orchard as it implies to infrastructue that is known to be bad.

      • Josh says:

        Unfortunately, they can point to a standard that says they’re in compliance, which makes it much harder to stick them with liability for knowingly maintaining a hazardous facility.

        Does the height of the lip vary with movement of the bridge? Temperature? Wind?

        If so, perhaps someone with a bit of time on their hands could sit on the bridge on a windy day and document the moment the lip is higher than 1/4″, so WSDOT can’t use the “it meets standards” defense?

  2. Maarten says:

    Agreed, those joints are harsh bumps. I found it baffling that our newest bridge is going to be the least comfortable to ride a bike on.

    • Kirk says:

      No, the Ballard Bridge is by far the least comfortable bridge to ride a bike on. The expansion joints are much more harsh, there are huge potholes and heaved sidewalks. Not to mention the death balusters, the merge of death and the three foot wide sidewalks.
      And I see in this plan that a new Montlake Bridge is in the planning?

  3. Carl W says:

    My thought is that for the entire life of the bridge, every bike rider and every wheelchair user who crosses the bridge on that path will curse the people responsible for those bumps, unless they change all of them to have a lower profile. According to one of the quotes from WSDOT, they will do lower profile bumps on the not-yet-open part of the bridge, so they should be able to retrofit the part that is open now.

  4. Skylar says:

    Is this something that’s beyond a little asphalt or rubber ramp around each joint?

    • Gary Anderson says:

      I rode the “bumps” again yesterday. It seems like a simple solution would be to glue or torch down some 1/4″ mats adjacent to the expansion joint covers. If they were a foot on each side of the joint the transitions wouldn’t be as abrupt. I also rode the much much older I-90 bridge — expansion joints are not a problem. Wonder what they are doing on the west end of the bridge to fix the problem that can’t (or just won’t) be done to the existing joint covers.

  5. Jay says:

    How about every WSDOT exec+manager be required to bike/wheel the entire length of the trail? Just like every Metro exec+manager might be required to use transit for at least 8 trips and 60-minutes and 4 routes every month, hmmm?

  6. Daniel says:

    Having ridden over these recently I agree that they are annoyingly bumpy.

    That impression is exacerbated by the fact the cars on the roadway next to the path don’t have the same bumps. In fact, several thousand bike riders got a chance to experience riding over the 520 bridge last month during the Emerald Bike Ride, myself included, and the roadway was nice and smooth to ride on.

    Why the bicycle path can’t be the same is a mystery to me.

    If they can do it for the cars, they can surely do it for the 520 path as well.

  7. Andrew P Sapuntzakis says:

    Reminiscent of the signs that are used to mark an irregularity in the road. Apparently that’s cheaper than fixing the road, as long as we ignore any vehicle damage.

    With over a year’s warning about this defect, and zero bike/ped traffic to work around, is WSDOT waiting until said traffic gets established and someone goes down hard enough to sue?

    Has anyone verified with a tape measure or a gauge block that the joint covers really do stand less than 1/4″ proud of the surface?

  8. Ben P says:

    This is why I like to be clipped in. The city is full of things I’d really rather bunny hop. But it’s one thing for dated and decaying infrastructure to require special skills and equipment to ride. It is a completely different story to build something from the start that only the hardcore will feel comfortable using. Another example of highway engineers ignorance of and disregard for bicycles.

  9. Al Dimond says:

    LOL at citing ADA. ADA is not a bike path design manual. Many ADA paths are terrible bike paths; in fact, bike paths are sometimes made worse by ADA, usually in small ways (e.g. the flat sections on bike-and-ADA ramps) and occasionally in big ways (e.g
    Kirkland’s NE 100th St. overpass of 405, where the path is sent on an unrideable series of switchbacks in order to meet ADA grade requirements within the available space). That doesn’t mean ADA shouldn’t be followed, but ADA compliance never means that an adequate bike path has been built.

  10. Gary says:

    Well until something is done to fix the lip, I suggest a quick spray with bright orange paint on the lip to at least visually warn riders of the hazard.

  11. Rob says:

    How many of these things are we talking about? How far apart are they?

  12. david allen says:

    Another point is that even relatively small bumps are dangerous on a downhill slope. what is a minor inconvenience on an even grade becomes a major safety issue when you are cruising down the bridge deck at 20+ mph. And as mentioned previously, the distraction of the views from the bridge is a real issue. People who don’t bicycle simply don’t get it and if we don’t advocate loudly, they won’t get it even when people start to crash and end up in the hospital.

  13. Anton says:

    I rode my mountain bike to the terminal end in July. I was visiting from Portland.
    Riding a bike requires focused attention. I did not note this problem with the joints.
    I do pay for the bridge thru tolls. Why not take a little personal responsibility for your safety and quit whining.

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