WSDOT screws up! Balky wheelchair lift strands senator's mom on new pedestrian overpass

It turned out to be "one of those days" for the Washington State Department of Transportation on Saturday, June 26, when officials, the public and WSDOT staffers celebrated the grand opening of the new Ray Moore Pedestrian Bridge.

The $2.5 million overpass crosses Aurora Avenue North at Galer Street, and the design includes a combination chair and wheelchair lift attached to the railings of tall stairways leading to the overpass on either side of the busy state road.

That feature proved handy for Elizabeth Kohl, the wheelchair-bound mother of State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a Queen Anne politico who has pushed for years to get the bridge built.

Houston, we have a problem

But while Kohl had no problem going up on the wheelchair lift, the contraption stopped in its tracks on the way down after approximately a dozen feet, leaving Kohl stranded between stairway landings.

And nothing WSDOT engineers did could get the suddenly balky lift moving again, a development that left Secretary of Transportation Doug MacDonald muttering about Murphy's Law. "This will be fixed," he vowed.

Compounding the screw-up, an automatic system on the lift that's supposed to trigger a 911 call in such circumstances also failed, according to John Chi, a WSDOT engineer who worked on the project.

A decision was made in the end to have Kohl walk down the stairs with the help of WSDOT staffers. But even that proved to be more perilous than it should have been because long stretches of railing were missing on the side of the stairway Kohl used.

Chi said stairway railing was missing on both sides of the overpass because the construction crew couldn't make the pieces they had fit. New pieces should be installed by this week, he said.

As for the lift itself: "The power-supply unit failed," said Chi, adding that the manufacturer did not have a replacement handy last Saturday. The lift has a two-year warranty, but the state has not signed off on it yet, he said.

However, Labor and Industries approved the lift on Friday, and the system was tested the next day before the grand opening ceremony, Chi said. "I went up and down (on it) twice that Saturday."

A wheelchair lift was chosen after an extensive public-outreach effort involving designers and advocates for the disabled, according to Bruce Nebbitt, a WSDOT designer.

Options for making the overpass compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act also included elevators and ramps, Nebbit said. "We went to the public, and there was overwhelming support for the chair-lift option."

A long time coming

With transportation secretary MacDonald acting as master of ceremonies, the grand opening included a ribbon-cutting using sneakers tied together with shoelaces, along with kids leaving footprints on the overpass in washable, Crayola-brand sidewalk paint.

MacDonald also quoted from a congratulatory letter from U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, who wrote that it was "high time" something like the new overpass was added to the city's transportation system.

Explaining why the overpass was named after the late Sen. Ray Moore, Kohl-Welles said: "Senator Ray Moore was the one who got the idea initially in the early 1980s."

Kohl-Welles herself has been heavily involved in the overpass project as well. "I started working on it in 1988 when I became a member of the Queen Anne Community Council," she said.

Her advocacy efforts continued in the state legislature, first as a representative and later as a senator on the Transportation Committee. There was a clear need for a pedestrian overpass along that stretch of Aurora Avenue, according to Kohl-Welles, who noted many pedestrians have been injured and killed trying to cross the arterial by vaulting the barrier. "I just knew this bridge had to be completed," she said.

According to WSDOT records, between 1980 and 2003 there were 58 pedestrians hit attempting to cross the street, with five of those accidents leading to fatal injuries.

State Supreme Court Justice and former state senator Phil Talmadge also spoke at the ceremony, adding his own take on why the pedestrian bridge was named after Moore. "Ray was one of the more phenomenal personalities to serve in the Senate," Talmadge said. "Now Ray's become an overpass."

Representing both the Uptown Alliance and the Queen Anne Community Council, John Coney thanked everyone involved in the project, and he noted that the pedestrian bridge implements part of the Queen Anne Plan. The overpass also links Lake Union to the Residential Urban Village on top of Queen Anne Hill and to the Uptown Urban Center in Lower Queen Anne, Coney said.

David Levinger, executive director of "feetfirst," a pedestrian-advocacy organization, also had high praise for the bridge. In the past, he said, planners of road projects looked on pedestrians as an obstacle.

That attitude has changed lately, and the overpass is an example of "getting back to basics," Levinger said.

Alex Young, the state architect who designed the pedestrian overpass, said it is "a very likable bridge" that sets a new standard. "We kind of broke the mold on this."

Construction of the overpass was delayed several months due to inclement weather last winter, and finding the money to pay for the pedestrian bridge also took some doing over the years, starting with a token appropriation of $73,000 in 1995.

Ultimately, the city kicked in $100,000 and donated 3,400 square feet of right-of-way, according to WSDOT. The state paid the balance of the $2.5 million, using $500,000 in federal dollars as part of the funding mix.

WSDOT also will have to spend a bit more for signage, as far as Kohl-Welles is concerned. A key is needed to operate the wheelchair lift, and signs at the bottom of the stairways on either side indicate the key can only be obtained by contacting King County Facilities Maintenance at 500 Fourth Avenue in Room 201.

Clearly irritated at having her mom stranded on the lift, Kohl-Welles didn't think providing just an address went far enough for the city's disabled citizens. "I want a phone number on there," she said.

Russ Zabel can be reached at[[In-content Ad]]