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Ship Canal Bridge Openings

Updated March 23, 2017

SDOT continues to collect data on bridge openings, durations, and traffic conditions. In coordination with the data collection, we will be making investments into the signal and intelligent transportation system equipment near the Fremont Bridge and on Leary Way. SDOT uses its Twitter account (@SDOTbridges) to alert the public to bridge openings 7 days a week from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. There are also three variable Messaging signs for Ballard Bridge openings at 15th Ave NW at NW 61 St,  15th Ave and Blaine St, and Holman Rd NW and 14th Ave NW.

The Fremont Bridge is the busiest of the ship canal bridges with 5,507 openings in 2016 followed by Ballard with 4072 in 2016 (the Fremont bridge had 28,800 Average Weekday vehicle crossings in 2014, and the Ballard bridge had 59,800 Average Weekday crossings in 2014). The intent of the investments is to improve the interaction of traffic signals with bridge openings and to provide additional traveler information to the public. We intend to have this work completed in the summer of 2017. With these coming investments, we believe it is prudent to evaluate operations once they are in place before proceeding with any request for a change in bridge operating restrictions.

The Seattle Department of Transportation owns and operates three of the four bridges on the Ship Canal – the Ballard, Fremont, and University bridges.  (The Montlake Bridge is owned and operated by the Washington State Department of Transportation.)

The Ship Canal itself is defined by federal law as a navigable waterway, making each of these bridges subject to federal oversight.  It is the US Coast Guard that many years ago gave SDOT the authority to not open these bridges on weekdays during the commute peaks of 7 – 9 AM and 4 – 6 PM.  (The exception is for large commercial vessels of 1,000 tons or more, for which bridges must always open upon request, regardless of the time of day.)

While the number of bridge openings has remained fairly constant in recent years, the impact to land-based traffic of the bridge openings has grown.  The morning and afternoon commutes have gotten longer, and traffic volumes have increased as Seattle's population has grown.

With the average bridge opening lasting five minutes, literally hundreds of cars get backed up for each opening.  The more cars, trucks and buses backed up, the longer it takes for them to clear.  Buses run behind schedule, emergency vehicles at times are delayed, commuters take longer to get to work and back home, and many of the delayed motorists leave their engines running, adding polluting emissions into the atmosphere. 

As one would expect, the numbers of bridge openings is heaviest between late spring and early fall, when the weather is the nicest, the days are longer, and recreational boaters are most active.  As you can see from the graph of openings at the Ballard Bridge for one week in August 2014, the number of bridge openings is greatest at the same time vehicular traffic is heaviest.  For example, during the period of 6 to 7 PM, there were 11 weekday bridge openings for that week, or an average of two each day.  During the same one hour period each day, some 2,600 vehicles cross the bridge.  The end result is backups that often extend as far south as Dravus and as far north as 65th, delays that can take considerable time to clear, sometimes clearing just as the next opening is requested. 

In response, last fall, SDOT asked the public whether they believe additional restrictions are warranted, and if so, what might those restrictions be. 

Nearly 500 individuals and/or organizations responded.  While the majority were land-based motorists supporting additional restrictions, many in the boating community voiced opposition to new restrictions and questioned whether such restrictions would have any meaningful positive effect on land-based traffic.

ADT = Average Daily Traffic


Additional Data

Fremont Bridge

ADT = Average Daily Traffic

University Bridge

ADT = Average Daily Traffic

2010-2014 monthly bridge opening totals

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
2010 155 149 173 245 264 307 338 342 290 165 113 143
2011 141 130 177 205 359 296 318 374 353 190 164 175
2012 164 144 196 213 336 326 356 384 318 241 132 123
2013 140 148 199 233 350 275 327 350 285 225 140 140
2014 150 130 216 249 319 299 304 328 310 204 114 157
Ballard Average 150 140 192 229 326 301 329 356 311 205 133 148
2010 174 157 226 259 321 394 513 505 381 238 130 171
2011 155 157 198 238 404 353 460 485 421 217 179 185
2012 155 166 176 248 420 355 513 524 379 273 159 152
2013 186 185 251 315 439 360 527 515 372 276 185 235
2014 203 158 252 332 430 372 472 471 384 320 145 212
Fremont Average 175 165 221 278 403 367 497 500 387 265 160 191
2010 64 93 96 134 176 218 263 297 167 107 68 85
2011 47 44 81 95 227 190 248 282 215 95 59 114
2012 49 64 65 106 221 200 290 305 214 106 68 65
2013 79 86 99 103 247 192 310 304 219 143 86 88
2014 87 76 118 160 223 198 239 258 238 143 80 101
University Average 65 73 92 120 219 200 270 289 211 119 72 91

Sampling of Citizen Feedback

To date (9/14/15) we have received 328 emails, of which 261 call for expanded restrictions and/or for the adoption of a system of scheduled openings. 

  • I constantly get screwed by these bridge openings… it hoses traffic for ten minutes, then I'm late picking up my kids and get charged. And why? So Thurston Howell can sail over to a slightly nicer chardonnay-sipping spot in the middle of a workday! Get a shorter mast... Bill
  • While backed up traffic is an inconvenient, making vessels wait longer than the current 10 minutes could be much worse. Having to wait for the bridge and maintain your vessel in the channel without striking the bridge, shoreline or another vessel can be very challenging. The weather and the quantity of other vessel traffic in the area are important issues that can potentially become very dangerous situations…Vessel collisions can cause injury to people, damage property and possibly even large environmental damage. It seems to me the potential for issues arising from having to wait longer than 10 minutes can be much worse then backed up traffic. Bill
  • I live in Ballard and drive the Ballard Bridge at least once every morning to get to work… I also go across the Ballard Bridge on my way home each night…If I leave downtown Seattle at 5:15 pm, I can rarely get to the Ballard Bridge by 6 pm…The bridge operator opens the Ballard Bridge at 6 pm -on the dot-practically every night. ..for a pleasure boat (which) doesn't sit well with me when hundreds of cars are stopped for one sailboat. Rondi
  • I am strongly opposed to this proposal…(the) current System Work - Bridge tenders…wait for a group of boats to gather…then open the bridge at an opportune time. If there has been an opening recently and traffic is backed up, they make boats wait longer. This is logical and makes sense. Al
  • I own a sailboat with a tall mast…I have always felt that it's not fair for me to be able to show up at a bridge…it's outrageous to ask dozens of people to wait while one vessel passes under the bridge... As a boat owner who raises the bridges and makes people wait for me regularly, I am happy to limit my passings more than they are now limited. – Lilette
  • If bridge openings have remained steady over time, but there are more cars piling up, then that is a car and transit problem, not a bridge-opening problem. Money should be spent on better transit solutions, not making life harder for the maritime traffic, which has done nothing wrong. Seattle is a maritime city. Penalizing water traffic for there being too many cars on the road makes no sense. Hollie
  • As a lifelong boater and Seattle native, I believe the … present system of restricting openings for a couple hours for the morning and evening commute is not compatible with the growth and change in density of the Seattle population… As employers are encouraged to stagger worktimes to improve traffic and commute times, the present bridge opening schedules penalize those that try to reduce traffic congestion… We have all questioned the rational of the single boat shutting down traffic as it transits the waterway opening all four bridges. Bruce
  • …the bridge blockages are not the problem, it's poor road design leading up to the bridges that causes the backups nearby, which are then exacerbated by the openings. If you solve the poor initial conditions and/or reduce the duration of bridge openings then both systems can coexist. The changes would be minor, but have significant impact on the overall traffic flow through the region. Andrew
  • I used to own a 35'J sailboat and whenever I needed to have it repaired I brought it in from Shilshole to a marina passing under the Ballard and Fremont bridges. I used to laugh at the cars having to wait for me, by myself, pass through. I only did this once per year but I always thought "how silly they just open it whenever, and just for me." I live on the Northside of Fremont bridge now and work downtown. …I don't laugh anymore when the bridge is up…Boaters won't care if you create a schedule. Do the ferry riders going back and forth to Bainbridge kick and scream? No, they make an adjustment in their lifestyle… Boaters will do the same. Byron
  • I find it ironic that the City of Seattle is so concerned with Traffic Congestion that it would propose to restrict the opening of the draw bridges. This is the same city that removes traffic lanes to put in bike lanes and bus only lanes. These two items create more congestion than the bridges. The city also removes parking spaces or, makes it so expensive to park in certain locations that people drive around for an extended period of time to find a place to park…Now, a suggestion for the bridges. Open on the quarter hour for pleasure boats if they are present. This would limit the openings to four per hour for pleasure boats. David
  • Our son takes a SPS school bus from Magnolia to Wallingford every day at 9am... He was late to school more than TWENTY days last year due to the bridge being up…We are in full support of extended timing for the deck to be down that reflects a more realistic high traffic schedule for the Ballard and Freemont bridges. Debra
  • I have found the frequent bridge openings to be a particular problem… especially with my delicate evening commute. I have to pick up my children no later than 6 and as it is now I never know if there will be a bridge issue on the way. This means that instead of leaving with a good 30-40 minute window to get home on the bus I need to plan at least 60 min. This means I sacrifice time at work and productivity there and often it means I sacrifice time at home with my kids. Heidi
  • I commute every day across the Ballard Bridge in the 9-10am and 6-8pm time periods, and the evening bridge openings are brutal. One opening can easily impact traffic for the next 30 minutes. The combined effect of the openings and the stoplight at NW Market St means northbound traffic can be backed up over a mile and a half after the bridge reopens (I've measured it) - especially when the bridge opens 2 or even 3 times between 6 and 7pm, which seems to happen a lot…It doesn't make sense to delay 1000 cars for the sake of one sailboat. I understand about commercial traffic, but it's usually one little sailboat. Jen
  • I'm both a driver and owner of a sailboat, and I'd like to see the bridge continue to operate how it currently operates. The only thing frustrating about taking a 5-minute break (when driving) is just barely missing the bridge—that's frustrating. Waiting until it's back down is nothing. Bridge closures (for drivers) are at least consistent, and the bridge operators operate with a whole lot of reason already. Derek
  • I just read the Seattle Times article about limiting the ship canal bridge openings. I think it is a great idea that has been long overdue. I live on Queen Anne and my kids go to school in Ballard. Due to school bell schedules and sports, I usually drive across the Ballard Bridge four to six times a day. Usually three to four of those times, the bridge goes up. I have had it go up at 2:55 driving to Ballard and then at 3:05 returning to Queen Anne on the very same day. It doesn't seem necessary to open twice within a 15 minute window…most times…for a single pleasure boat. I now plan an additional 10 minute cushion into my drive. Lynn
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