We Live in Gridlock City

By Jean Godden

"The greatest publicity stunt of all time" (or so they said) took place on Seattle's waterfront in the midst of a gridlock. The traffic jam occurred in 1947 after a tanker car filled with sweetened corn syrup broke its coupling and spilled gallons and gallons onto Alaskan Way at Columbia Street.

Ever the salesman, restaurateur Ivar Haglund donned hip boots and waded into the sticky mess. He was carrying a stack of pancakes and, while chowing down, he proclaimed, "Eat at Ivar's. We never spare the syrup."

It was a silver-lining moment in the midst of an ugly traffic backup, a moment like one in Seattle on February 28. That recent incident starred El Tajin, a Mexican food truck, that, when stuck in a massive I-5 backup, fired up its grill and began selling tacos.

The taco episode, reported nationally, was the sole silver lining in that epic backup. The February roadblock had occurred when a semitruck carrying propane gas plowed into four vehicles, rolled over and sprawled across the Southbound lanes of Interstate 5.

The 10 a.m. accident halted traffic on both I-5 north and southbound lanes and closed eastbound ramps to I-90 and the West Seattle Bridge. The jam prompted evacuation of a nearby homeless encampment and shut the city down for eight miserable hours.

It is true the propane accident differed from other gridlocks. This time there was a highly flammable cargo, an afternoon snowfall and wet streets. Although the accident occurred on an interstate, it also impacted dozens of Seattle streets and the operation of King County Metro buses.

All that said, one has to wonder why -- given manpower and equipment available to three governments (state, city and county) -- there was not a faster, smoother, more coordinated response.

It recalled a March 26, 2015 incident when a semi loaded with frozen codfish overturned on the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the Seattle Department of Transportation spent nine hours clearing the accident. Lengthy delays resulted because SDOT devoted hours first to rescuing frozen fish, rather than restoring traffic.

As the result of a testy after-action report to the Seattle City Council's Transportation Committee, SDOT officials reordered city priorities. (Disclosure: I was one of the testy committee members.) Afterwards, SDOT placed traffic flow ahead of property preservation. The city also commissioned a report on how better to respond; and Mayor Murray said the city would produce a manual for dealing with major incidents.

Comes now the bad news: Two years later, that manual still has not been written. SDOT transportation director Mark Bandy told the Seattle Times that the department has been following a series of "two and three page procedurals." He said the Feb. 28 accident was handled the same "as if things had been written down in a manual." Getting the manual together, he said, is on the department's "to-do list for this year."

Two years late is none too soon. The point of having a written manual is to ensure the agency maintains consistent policies and procedures when conditions vary and when staff changes. While a manual may not have improved responses to the propane accident, it would have helped to have a yardstick to measure results. The public, too, would be better served if procedures were codified and aired.

What remains are unanswered questions such as which category has priority? Buses? Perishable freight? Strangely, we have not heard much from those in charge. Where one wonders is the SDOT director, the one who famously rescued the frozen codfish in 2015? Where are state, city and county leaders?

Seattle is a population center of 3-million people. To shut down transportation through its heart means to shut down business and trade and to put lives on hold.

Good news about the Feb. 28 traffic jam is that emergency responders helped prevent injuries beyond those suffered in the collision and that dangers posed by the flammable propane cargo were averted. Bad news is that the promised manual remains unwritten and that procedures for quick resolution apparently are not sufficiently spelled out.

The public is left with dozens of questions and they bear discussion. We're all part of the potential backups and it would help to know which procedures are in place when we're stuck in the next hours-long gridlock. We could use a few more silver-linings (hold the syrup).

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