King County Then and Now: From Congested to Connected

After the Seattle Fault Earthquake in 2015, the transportation infrastructure in King County was crippled by damage and traffic that was worse than ever before. Local stakeholders from the public and private sector put together an ambitious transportation reconstruction plan before the earthquake. The city now thrives today thanks to these projects inspired from this plan. Complete projects include added transit infrastructure, “complete streets” that allow for all modes of transportation, and added redundancies and connections within the region’s transportation network.

This story is a work of fiction, including all names and quotes, written by WWU DRR students for public education purposes. Site design by Dr. Scott Miles.

It’s now been ten years since the famous Seattle Fault Earthquake of 2015 that devastated the King County area. While there have been many hardships for citizens in the area, it may come as a surprise to outsiders, but the County is now doing better than ever before. This can be largely attributed to pre-event planning that envisioned massive changes in transportation infrastructure for disaster recovery through a myriad of innovative projects.

Directly after the event, many bridges and roads were unusable because of extensive damage that made them a safety hazard. Emergency responders had difficulty getting to many priority areas.

“With the damage to the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge that continues WA-520,it was really difficult for us to coordinate with areas like Bellevue and Kirkland”, said Seattle emergency manager Lyn Caelin.

Despite the best efforts of many involved, it became apparent that the extent of damage was overwhelming the County. President Obama was quick to issue a Major Disaster Declaration for the area, giving the County help through Federal funding. The immediate needs of citizens were taken care of and more funding options started to be procured. With this, local government officials, county council members, private business owners, and emergency managers all sat down to discuss the options for recovery.

“Private businesses were willing to invest their time and money in the reconstruction planning process”, recalled a County councilwoman. “They realized that getting transportation back up meant citizens getting back to normal which would contribute to their business’ ability to continue to make a profit.”

Many businesses also agreed to a mitigation tactic that would increase their resiliency.  They took inspiration from Lawson, a Japanese convenient store chain in order to prepare the county’s private sector in the case of another earthquake,

After the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, Lawson equipped its branch offices throughout Japan with bicycles in case of a disaster happening again. Seeing this as a model, King County called upon the private sector to take advantage of the county’s connected and sustainably-centered transportation infrastructure.

“Modeling themselves after Lawson, private entities within King County have taken the initiative to promote bicycle-centric uses amongst employees” says Maria McKnight, a senior transportation planner with the county. “In case some aspects of the county’s transportation system become debilitated in a future disaster, many employees will have access to bicycles in order to get to work.”

However, with such a big collaborative process between the private and public sector, there were many opinions about how to rebuild. Many stakeholders wanted to see transportation infrastructure put back to how it was before the quake so that people wouldn’t be affected by even longer reconstruction times. Others wanted the rebuild to be at minimal cost so that the state and local governments didn’t go further into debt on ambitious projects.

“Projects to rebuild and recover the transportation network were already predicted to be in the billions of dollars, so there was a lot of different concerns about the best way to proceed,” said former mayor Jacobs. “Even though we planned before the event, there was definitely still a lack of common vision in the beginning after the earthquake.”

After a lengthy discussion, stakeholders agreed on an ambitious transportation plan identifying concrete projects. Stakeholders in the planning processes eventually agreed on the goal of more sustainable options that would provide more resiliency in the event of another earthquake. The plan looked to minimize congestion through a comprehensive overall design of the system rather than looking at different piecemeal projects across the County. Planners sought to improve connectivity and mobility with the plan by filling in missing links between pedestrian, bike and street networks throughout the area.

“Past transportation planning efforts had really failed to take into account population growth and the amount of travelers that would be going through the City and County each day,” said Deborah Peterson, Agency Director of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). “With damage and destruction to so much of the infrastructure, we were really given a fresh start to do things better.”

complete streetsOne of the first components of the plan was the “complete streets” project, which had been initially proposed in the Puget Sound Regional Council’s (PSRC) Growth Management Act (GMA) 2040 VISION goals developed before the earthquake. The goal before the quake had been to safely incorporate many types of travel such as pedestrian, bicycle, automobile and freight, into one street system so that each mode had safe and efficient use of each street.

“The complete streets project was great because it allows more travel capacity with fewer vehicles, which cuts down on congestion”, said PSRC president Pat McCarthy. “It also cost less because the current transportation infrastructure could be utilized to create the new streets.”

Many praised the project and its inherent ability to create more walkable, sustainable neighborhoods. But there was initial concern that there would not be enough availability of experienced transportation design engineers to work on the project. So many professionals had left the area soon after the earthquake.

“This was quite an ambitious project over a large amount of area, so we weren’t sure how the work was going to get done without more human resources”, said Pat McCarthy.

Luckily, in the aftermath of the event, experienced contractors and engineers from neighboring counties and states made contact with the County, offering their services. Along with this, the County created monetary incentives to attract even more professionals. The temporary influx of qualified personnel allowed the complete streets project, as well as many other projects, to begin development.

In another effort to relieve congestion in the aftermath of the quake, it was decided that a greater investment in transit lines and buses was needed. More bus routes were immediately added and new areas for transit lines were funded. The emphasis on connectivity was seen as a way to increase accessibility.

“When a bus is fully used by the public, it can take up to 60 automobiles off the road”, said the General Manager of King County Metro Kevin Desmond. “We wanted to make sure that transit was a viable option for anyone to use, and that no one would be deterred from using our services because of stigmas about our operation.”

Many citizens had expressed concern that adding even more transit vehicles would make for more crowded streets. They were worried about what more frequently stopping busses could do to congestion.

The County addressed these concerns through rapid expansion of the pre-quake program “Rapid Ride.” It was eventually decided that the Rapid Ride system be improved to a complete bus rapid transit or BRT system. The major feature of the BRT is busses having their own right of way that is separated by dividers. This ensured the efficiency and safety of the system optimal for all modes of transportation.

“We felt like this was the best way to improve our transit infrastructure without compromising other modes of travel on the Complete Streets”, said Kevin Desmond.
The County also began working with government stakeholders on ways to make the transportation system more resilient in the event of another major earthquake. Aside from plans to recover and retrofit the current transportation infrastructure, there was also the idea that more redundancies could be built into the system.

“By building more connectivity between different areas in the county, we were able to ensure that transportation systems would have the capacity to deal with traffic, even if there was damage to a main route”, said Deborah Peterson of WSDOT.

The county soon realized that another critical aspect of an equitably connected post-disaster transportation system was incorporating ADA (American with Disabilities Act) compliant mechanisms into their projects. For this, county leaders took inspiration from efforts in Joplin, Missouri to revitalize their transportation network.

After an EF5 tornado struck Joplin and destroyed thirty percent of the city, community leaders came together to foster connectivity of its new transportation system. All new sidewalks in Joplin were made ADA-compliant and enhanced connectivity to shopping, dining, and green space. This added a notion of equity for Joplin residents who have disabilities and need to use its transportation system on a daily basis.

Investigations were done by the county to determine potential detour routes along similar paths in the event that a future earthquake damaged key transportation infrastructure routes. Modeled after the Los Angeles Department of Transportation’s (LADOT) “Smart Corridor” project from the 1990’s, the hope was that if such routes could be identified, then steps could be taken to prepare these roads for higher volumes during post disaster situations.

Land acquisition along with building new bridges and corridors meant quite a monetary commitment for those involved. There were also several environmental permitting challenges. New sources of funding from the federal level improved the feasibility of the project and the Washington State Transportation Commission offered funds from tolls. The project was given the green light once funding was secured and environmental law experts went to work trying to negotiate mitigation alternatives so that the environmental permitting process could be streamlined. By the time that eminent domain acquisitions had been made for the priority areas, the environmental review had resulted in a “Mitigated Determination of Non-Significance” ruling which allowed for construction to begin.

With these successfully realized project opportunities, the county began moving forward in its rebuilding process and today it has helped achieve the lowest level of congestion in the area since 1995. New projects are being discussed recently in light of the success of the post disaster projects. Many are excited to see this revolutionary new chapter in the County’s history continue.

“What we’re doing here is not only changing the lives of our citizens, it’s motivating communities in other states to start assessing and changing their sustainability and resilience”, said PSRC president Pat McCarthy.