West Seattle Bridge Closure Exposes Inequities in Duwamish Valley Communities

by Bunthay Cheam

On March 23, the City of Seattle closed the West Seattle Bridge due to rapidly expanding cracks that rendered it unsafe for vehicle traffic.

The bridge will be closed until at least 2021 and may not be repairable according to Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) director Sam Zimbabwe. SDOT is still working to assess the full cost and timeline of needed repairs.

The city-owned bridge is vital to people living on the West Seattle peninsula, serving as the main route of access to the rest of the city, serving about 100,000 vehicles per day.

The main detour routes offered by the city take drivers through the Duwamish Valley, and through the communities of Georgetown, South Park and along  West Marginal Way.

Uncertainty about how long repairs will take and the impending influx of traffic and air pollution has residents in the Duwamish Valley worried, especially as COVID-19 shelter-in-place guidelines from Gov. Jay Inslee continue to ease.

“My immediate thoughts were ‘Where are the 90,000 cars going to go?’” said John Persak, a 14-year resident of Georgetown, upon learning of the bridge’s closure. “And my immediate next thought was —  well, they have to go through Georgetown because all of those West Seattle commuters that use that bridge are trying to access I-5, I-90 and, to some degree, downtown.”.

Persak helped draft a letter to the city with a coalition of Georgetown and Duwamish Valley stakeholders about the impact of the detour as it routes through the area.

“The biggest impacts will be along Michigan [Street] and Bailey [Street] particularly. We have an artist community around 4th [Ave South] and Michigan, but also Michigan where it intersects with Corson [Ave South] is a congested intersection and with Carlton, which is a residential street,” said Persak.

Detour routes in response to the West Seattle Bridge closure. (Photo courtesy of Seattle Department of Transportation.)

In 2009, the Duwamish Tribe opened its Longhouse, which is located along West Marginal Way across from the Duwamish River. For the most direct route to areas such as Alki or the Admiral District, commuters take West Marginal Way after crossing over from Georgetown and South Park. That increase is having an impact on the cultural center.

“People drive too fast on West Marginal Way … there’s a lot of traffic in the morning and at night now,” said Jolene Haas, a Duwamish Tribe member and Director of the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center. 

While the lower Spokane Street bridge is still open, it’s currently restricted to transit, freight, emergency vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians.

“My concern is [traffic coming from] the south, cutting through South Park and Georgetown to go to West Seattle … they would have to come and cut through both communities that are already super-impacted by air pollution and the traffic infrastructure. We’re not prepared to get a hundred thousand vehicles in our small neighborhoods,” said Paulina Lopez, a South Park resident and Executive Director of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition (DRCC).

Some Duwamish Valley residents feel that the increased traffic will also stress an already outdated traffic infrastructure.

“I think the city has been behind on making investments in our active transportation network, especially down in this part of Seattle … Georgetown and South Park,” said Jesse Moore, a Georgetown resident and organizer for Duwamish Valley Safe Streets (DVSS). “We don’t have the same options in the rest of the city to get out of our cars and reach our destinations efficiently.”

Some residents hope that what’s happening with the West Seattle Bridge can shed light on issues Georgetown and South Park have continuously advocated for, such as access to essential needs that are unique to the Duwamish Valley. 

“Other neighborhoods have a grocery store, they have a community center or a library,” said Persak. “They have health care facilities. All of us [in Georgetown] have to leave the neighborhood to get all of those things. And so if there’s gridlock in the neighborhood, we either have to get into a car, which is time consuming, we have to get on a bus, which will also be caught up, or we have to attempt to bike for our more able-bodied people. And that presents its own set of challenges because of the existing conditions of not a lot of places for bikes.” 

Residents say South Park, which is considered a food desert, has its capacity already constrained due to impacts from COVID-19. Increased traffic could put even more strain on access to community needs. 

“Even now with this [COVID-19] crisis there are families accessing the resources at Concord [International School]. Families are going up there to get pickup lunch from the free lunch program, families who are picking up packets of work because they don’t have the resources to access technology,” said Peaches Thomas who worked as a traffic ambassador for Concord International School in South Park and is an organizer for DVSS.

A flyer for one of many free food programs that have sprung up in response to community needs due to COVID-19 impacts. (Photo courtesy of Urban Fresh Food Collective.)

South Park has a high concentration of households with children, and according to the City of Seattle’s Duwamish Valley Action Plan, 83% of students qualify for reduced or free lunch, compared to the city average of 37%. Compared to the city average of 21%, 40% of households speak a language other than English, making homeschooling an access issue for households that are non-native speakers of English.

Air pollution is also a high-priority issue for residents. The City of Seattle’s Duwamish Valley Action Plan revealed that asthma prevalence in the Duwamish Valley is 12%, compared to the city average of 9%.

“Beyond the pedestrian safety … our biggest concern at PTA [is] also the air quality and the effect on our kids with asthma [because] of so many more cars,” said Robin Schwartz, a South Park resident and member of the Concord International School PTA.

Another study, The Cumulative Health Impacts Analysis (CHIA), written by Just Health Action and the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/Technical Advisory Group in 2013, found that “a range of health exposures and impacts disproportionately affect people in the Duwamish Valley, an area with the greatest number of contaminated waste sites, poorly built environment characteristics, and severe air pollution compared to the rest of Seattle. Life expectancy in the neighborhoods of Georgetown and South Park is up to 13 years shorter than wealthier parts of Seattle.”

“That’s one of the biggest concerns we heard that keeps coming up, is we’re already dealing with so much pollution in the [Duwamish] Valley. We’re already dealing with lower life expectancy and higher incidence of childhood asthma.” said Jesse Moore.

SDOT Downtown Mobility Director, Heather Marx, has been appointed by Sam Zimbabwe to oversee the West Seattle Bridge repair project. “Of course they [historic environmental justice issues] were taken into consideration but we don’t have a lot of choices. There are only so many routes across the Duwamish waterway,” said Marx, responding to whether historic environmental justice issues affecting Duwamish Valley residents were taken into consideration when SDOT decided on the detour routes.

“We like to focus on arterials [when deciding detour routes], we don’t want to send people onto neighborhood streets,” said Marx. “We also focus on routes that are most proximate and most parallel to the road that’s being detoured. In the case of the West Seattle bridge, we have geography, topography and existing infrastructure not in our favor… This isn’t the way I would have it, but it’s what we’ve got and we’re making the best use of it.”

Residents hope their voices will be included as plans to mitigate the bridge closure progress.

“We definitely want a seat at the table, because people are definitely perceiving this as a West Seattle issue and forgetting we’re part of this,” said Aley Thompson, one of the organizers behind a letter to the city from South Park community members.

“No, they haven’t [reached out to us initially] and that’s why part of the letter was like, we need to be sitting at the table making sure that they’re considering our opinion of everything that they’re planning,” said Paulina Lopez, “that they should be bringing our community leadership and that we also get to decide on the mitigation measures. They’re not here on the day to day. They’re not here to see this reality.” 

These are some of the issues that were underscored in the letter that prompted Duwamish Valley community members to reach out to the city through a letter with more than two dozen community stakeholders as signatories.

Mayor Jenny Durkin unveiled the city’s Duwamish Valley Action Plan in 2018 with a goal to, “expand economic opportunity, make environmental progress and increase investments in the South Park and Georgetown communities.” 

“The city has been better, the investment … the city is doing a lot with their race, social justice and equity toolkit. They’re trying to address systemic and historical racism,” said Aley Thompson.

Despite programs like the Duwamish Valley Action Plan, there’s fear among members of the community that the momentum created might dissipate if West Seattle bridge mitigation plans don’t include Duwamish Valley voices.

“DROF [The Duwamish River Opportunity Fund] came out of years of advocacy,” said Lopez, “to have more community ownership, community ways of doing things. When you’re thinking about the government doing things better and engaging populations, but then these types of things happen … what happened with the encouragement for communities and for creating programs that talk more to equity when you didn’t even consult with [the] community?”

DROF is a grant pool awarded by the city to “improve the quality of life and restore the health of Duwamish River communities.”

“I think this health crisis has really shown a lack of infrastructure for people to have alternate routes to get to where they’re going,” said Peaches Thomas.

“If there is a time for prioritizing the projects that are already on the table, it would definitely be now, so that they are not left out of the shuffle. Because if those projects remain further delayed, then the equities, the inequity and the inaccessibility, will continue in those communities.”

‘When the low span bridge also closes, if only temporarily for repairs of the upper bridge, every single person riding a bike towards downtown will be going through Georgetown or South Park,” said Jesse Moore. “They’ll have to. And I think now everybody’s realizing there is no safe bicycle infrastructure at all through the manufacturing industrial center into SODO … I think that there are projects like the South Park to Georgetown trail that could be a way for the residents in those neighborhoods and community members to better access those spaces.” 

DVSS recently concluded outreach for a planned Georgetown to South Park bike trail in partnership with SDOT and fears that its progress may come to a halt when the communities need it most to deal with the bridge’s closure.

“Right now the city’s under a lot of budget restraints and there’s a lot of considerations for prioritizing other essential needs this time. But I think the bridge closure has highlighted the need for citywide connectivity. The concern would be keeping those projects hopefully on the table.” said Moore.

“Because of the pandemic, everybody’s budget is squeezed,” said Marx. “We at SDOT, as well as the mayor and the City Council, have to take into consideration the needs of the whole city, but with a special recognition that the communities that are most impacted by the West Seattle bridge closure are attended to appropriately.”

The Duwamish Valley Youth Corps is a program that engages the youth of the Duwamish Valley through environmental justice projects and job skills. (Photo credit: Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition)

When asked about what the Duwamish Valley communities need to best absorb the traffic and pollution caused by the bridge closure, many residents pointed to investments in more transportation options and safety for pedestrians.

“We’ve been advocating to get to the Duwamish River,” said Jolene Hass of the Duwamish Tribe. “We’ve been advocating for crosswalks because we try to get to the river [and] to T-107 Park, which is an archeological site. And we have tours and schoolchildren that come.” 

The Duwamish Longhouse sits on an acre of land across the street from the Duwamish River, along West Marginal Way, one of the main routes to West Seattle since the bridge’s closure. 

The park across the street, T-107, is owned by the Port of Seattle. Many visitors use its parking lot while visiting the Duwamish Longhouse.

“We need people to be able to come to the Longhouse,” Hass said. “We have limited parking and people want to ride their bus and take the bus … a lot of Indian people are poor, they ask to take the bus. We have people that work for us that don’t have cars that need to take the bus.” 

Currently, bus service doesn’t run on the stretch of West Marginal Way where the Duwamish Longhouse sits.

Letters from the Duwamish Valley and Georgetown include suggestions for increased bus service, safe pedestrian crossings and improved bike connection.

Haas noted that there have been some new traffic revisions near the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center. “We’re thankful that SDOT did traffic revisions in front of the Longhouse to make it easier to see traffic,” she said. “They’ve reduced two lanes to one lane going south. It gives us a chance to get out to West Marginal Way without getting hit.”

In the coming weeks, Marx plans to respond to all community letters, as well as begin dialogue and unveil neighborhood traffic plans that, she said, “will include all the ideas that we’ve collected both within SDOT as well as from the community.”

“We want to give comprehensive responses that really address in a serious way all of the issues that the community has brought up,” Marx said, “and that’s not something that can be completed in ten minutes. We really want to put some thought into it.”

On April 28, District 1 Councilmember Lisa Herbold, whose district encompasses West Seattle and South Park, held a virtual town hall to take questions and hear concerns from residents.

“We’re sharing all recommendations with SDOT,”  Herbold said, “really requiring them to communicate with folks as much as possible in real time.”

She stresses it’s also up to voters to help mitigate impacts in the Duwamish Valley.

“In order for any of that work to really come to fruition,” Herbold said, “we need to make sure that Seattle passes a new transportation benefit district. We are not going to have any additional funding for new services. The city has a new transportation benefit district package on the ballot in November.”

“I’m hoping that now they’ll see that West Marginal Way has got to become more important to the community,” said Jolene Haas.

“I’m tired of feeling afraid to ask like it’s asking too much,” she said. “That’s how we feel most of the time.”

Bunthay Cheam was born in the Khao I Dang refugee camp. He is a storyteller, activist and lifelong resident of South Park.

Featured image by Alex Garland.