For many years, SDOT has sought to build an overpass separating cars, trucks, and buses on Lander Street in Sodo from crossing train traffic. Last time we checked in, the project was included in the Move Seattle project list and had secured a $45 million federal grant, but was still $40 million short of full funding. On Wednesday, the city announced that it achieved full funding, thanks to a combination of a $17 million lower cost estimate after final design, additional appropriations from the City Council, and an additional $10 million contribution from the Port of Seattle. Construction is expected to begin next year, for completion in 2019.
The project has been controversial among local urbanists, because it is expensive and intended primarily for vehicular traffic, especially Port of Seattle truck traffic. I think the concept of the overpass has more merit than is often acknowledged, because it would improve bus reliability and has the potential to make walking to transit safer.
The benefits to bus reliability already look promising. Lander is the primary transit-accessible route between the West Seattle Bridge and Sodo destinations. Today, it serves one major frequent bus route (5/21), one infrequent local route (50), and a few commuter routes. Anecdotal evidence suggests that train crossings at Lander are responsible for a substantial portion of overall delays on routes 5 and 21, especially northbound route 5 service. In its long-range plan, Metro expects to expand service on Lander further, upgrading the frequent Sodo-West Seattle route to RapidRide (while changing its routing) and adding a pair of routes that would provide frequent service to South Park and Tukwila. A Lander overpass would improve reliability of all of these services substantially.
Unfortunately, SDOT’s current design (east end pictured above) does not realize the overpass’s potential to improve pedestrian access to transit in Sodo. The east end of the new overpass will be one long block from a Link station. The overpass will be the primary walking route from transit to Starbucks headquarters and numerous businesses along 1st Ave S. If a new Sodo arena is ever built, the overpass will also be the primary walking route to the arena. But, despite the obvious usefulness of the overpass to non-drivers, it has four general-purpose lanes, while restricting pedestrians and bicycles to a single mixed-use path along the north side of the bridge. Sidewalks on the south side would come to dead ends, without providing any way for users to access the mixed-use path except returning all the way to 1st Ave S or 4th Ave S. This is not good enough.
SDOT needs to provide safe pedestrian access on both sides of the overpass, not force south-side pedestrians to backtrack a few hundred feet just to access the overpass safely or to make more crossings. If the design has to be reduced to three general-purpose lanes to provide safe pedestrian access on the south side without increasing project cost, that is a worthwhile tradeoff. New infrastructure should be built with no-compromise access for sustainable modes of transportation. If built that way, the Lander overpass could be a valuable improvement to sustainable mobility, rather than an enduring symbol of missed opportunity.