Ups and Downs of the Ballard Bridge

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Picture it: You’re driving along, minding your own business when….awww man! The bridge is going up. Sometimes it seems like it’s open forever. Especially when you’re in a hurry. What’s that? There’s only one lousy gravel barge going through and the bridge had to open for that? Now you will surely be late. 

Or imagine: You are the captain of a huge commercial vessel, on your way out of Lake Union after having some work done on the boat. It’s rush hour, but you can’t wait. This boat needs to get back to work and every hour counts. Plus, it’s not like you can just park for a while until rush hour ends. 

It’s Like an Eternity 

In Seattle, there are several draw bridges, but the well-known Ballard Bridge is one of the busiest. With 4,072 openings in 2016 according to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), the Ballard Bridge second only to the Fremont Bridge in number of openings. For those waiting on a bridge opening, it may seem like the average opening time is hours, but a typical opening is just 4 or 5 minutes. (Not counting the additional minutes it often takes to clear the resulting traffic backup.) 

But sometimes, like the day of our visit, there may be several vessels lined up to go through the open bridge, resulting in an opening of 13 minutes. “Some large vessels go through faster, it just depends who the captain is”, notes long-time bridge operator David Leask. 

“This was a rare occurrence on Ballard for a 13-minute opening. A regular sand and gravel barge going through is more like a seven-minute opening…but actually we’ve only had maybe a half-dozen or so longer openings this year.” 

So, if opening the bridge for so long multiple times each day wreaks such havoc on drivers, why can’t the SDOT just place some more restrictions on boaters? It’s not that simple. 

Let’s All Get Along 

“Everybody has to understand it’s a balancing act. We’re a maritime community, we have bridges, waterways, and a growing metropolitan area…It’s a balancing act to support the community we live in and work in,” U.S. Coast Guard public relations officer Dana Warr reflects. 

While the SDOT manages the bridge openings (and deals with the resulting traffic woes), the U.S. Coast Guard that manages the waterway under the bridges. 

To help ease some of the wrath of drivers caught in frequent bridge openings, the SDOT received permission from the Coast Guard many years ago to restrict bridge openings during rush hours (7 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. except national holidays) with one exception: large commercial vessels. 

Size Matters 

While pleasure boats are very maneuverable, a boat that is 1,000 tons or more is not. Imagine the difference between pushing a small shopping cart with nearly nothing in it versus a fully-loaded Costco cart. (Hint: It’s not super-maneuverable). 

“You have to worry about the wind. If they are a large vessel, the wind will affect them. They could start going sideways…Little sail boats can go off to the side, but if it’s a larger vessel or any tug or tow, we need to get them right through,“ notes Leask. 

Drivers, when you are stuck at an open bridge, fuming about having to wait again, remember that often there is only ONE way in or out for a boat, while drivers may have several route options. 

“It’s not like driving a car…There’s only one way into Lake Washington; through the Ship Canal. While vehicles have numerous routes,“ adds Coast Guard District 13 bridge administrator, Commander Steven Fischer. 

All Hail the Bridge 

For boaters about to go under the bridge, getting the bridge to open is a very simple process. Contact the bridge by radio (marine band channel 13) or use a whistle signal—one long followed by one short. The Coast Guard asks that pleasure boaters use the whistle signal between 7 a.m. and dusk. 

Boaters, be prepared and remember it’s OK to ask questions.  

“Get as much information as you can,” adds Leask.  

You can also call the Ballard Bridge. While they don’t like it if you call for an opening, they are happy to give information if you call, says Leask. Looking for information that the bridge operator may not have? Call the SDOT. 

Although most boats needing a bridge opening are also going through the Ballard Locks, don’t call the bridge looking for information about getting through the Locks. Though you do need that information, it’s much better to get it from the Army Corps of Engineers who manage the Locks, or their website. 

“We’d rather not have you call unless you need to, but we’d rather keep the lines open for those who need it,” adds Leask. Before the days of the Internet in the late 1980s when Leask started as a bridge operator, the calls were often. Now, you can find just about all the information you need online. 

Very Important Tips for Boaters 

When you’re taking a vessel under one of Seattle’s draw bridges, there are two extremely important tips for success—and avoiding serious damage to your boat. 

“Don’t try to beat the bridge! It’ll end up bad for you,” cautions Fischer. 

Fischer and Leask both emphasized knowing the height of your mast if you are captaining a sailboat. As in, actually measuring it if need be. The Ballard Bridge’s clearance is 44 feet at the center of the bridge.  (The SDOT actually added a little bit of a buffer just in case, so it’s really more like 45’ according to Sue Romero, City of Seattle Senior Public Relations Specialist.) 

It also really helps to know where the lake level is at. You can check that with the Army Corps of Engineers. 

Finally, know how to signal the bridge, know when rush hour is, and be aware of the times when you might have to wait. 

“I do refuse an opening maybe once a year or two for a sail boat that’s so small it could go through anywhere, he just doesn’t know. And it’s an optical illusion when you’re on a sail boat. You look up and it looks like no matter how big your mast is, or how small it is, the you’re going to hit,” chuckles Leask. 

Growing Pains

As the area grows, it will be more difficult to manage this balance. As members of the community, we will need to work together and with the various agencies that manage the bridges and waterways.

Fortunately, if you are a driver who gets stuck when a bridge is open, there are things you can do to pass the time. 

“Get out of your car and enjoy the view, meet your neighbor, maybe have a quick picnic on the empty side of the street, do yoga, propose to your girlfriend–the possibilities are endless!” adds bridge operator Captain Kristan Liechti. 

Get the Latest Info: U.S. Coast Guard’s Notice to Mariners