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Transportation agencies weigh safety improvements on Aurora Bridge after fatal crash

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SEATTLE -- Less than two weeks after the deadly duck boat crash on the Aurora Bridge, both the city and the state are looking at ways to improve safety on that stretch of roadway.

This isn’t the first time highway planners have looked for safety improvements but now some members of the City Council believe more must be done.

“Those lanes seem incredibly narrow,” said Seattle City Councilman Bruce Harrell. “I don’t know if we need data to come to that conclusion.”

Scott Kubly, director of Seattle Department of Transportation, answered questions from the City Council about safety on the Aurora Bridge after last month’s crash between a duck boat and a tour bus killed five people.

“We are looking at how to make this bridge safer,” he said.

Federal investigators will ultimately decide what caused the deadly crash. However, with no center safety barrier on the bridge, the duck boat lost control and crossed over into the oncoming lanes. City officials agree something needs to be done to improve safety.

“One of the things that may, in fact, make this bridge have a low crash rate is people feel they have to be intensely focused as they’re driving across the bridge because the lanes are so narrow,” Kubly said.

The six-lane highway handles 70,000 vehicles each day, and in the past decade there haven’t been any other fatal crashes.

Back in the early 2000s, several safety improvements were considered, including widening lanes above and placing pedestrians beneath the bridge. But other than stronger guardrails and safety fencing, few improvements have happened on the bridge itself.

“The Aurora Bridge is actually one of our safer bridges,” Kubly said.

According to the Seattle Department of Transportation, most of the crashes on Highway 99 occur well off the bridge deck -- and, when comparing crashes to miles driven, Kubly said, both the Fremont and Ballard bridges record more collisions than the Aurora Bridge.

New safety improvements could range from reducing the bridge from six lanes down to four – or installing a reversible lane down the center.

“Some roads have done that,” said Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata, “And therefore you’ve widened the lanes and still allow for perhaps greater flow of traffic.”

But before making any permanent changes SDOT said any improvements must come from collision data and not an emotional reaction stemming from the deadly duck boat crash.

“The thing we don’t want to do is make rash decisions that may have unintended consequences for other safety issues,” said Kubly.

The Washington State Department of Transportation owns the bridge but SDOT is in charge of keeping it up and running. The two agencies will unveil suggested safety improvements in the next couple of months.