Unpaid Tickets from West Seattle Bridge Violations Add Up to Millions

West Seattle and Spokane Street Bridges
Unauthorized drivers who used the lower Spokane Street Bridge (right) when the West Seattle Bridge was closed for repairs racked up more than 130,000 traffic citations in 2021 and 2022. Photo by Lizz Giordano.

By Lizz Giordano

A windfall from traffic tickets during the closure of the West Seattle Bridge could soon reach the Seattle Department of Transportation, as more than 74,000 citations from traffic cameras on the Spokane Street bridge, also known as the “lower” West Seattle Bridge, head to collections next year. 

When the West Seattle Bridge closed for repairs in 2020, the city banned most drivers from using the lower bridge except between late night and early morning to give buses and emergency vehicles a clear path between West Seattle and downtown. The city first relied on police officers to catch scofflaws, then installed automated cameras to issue citations in early 2021. 

As of the end of this October, more than half of those citations remain unpaid. At $75 per citation, that adds up to more than $5.5 million in potential revenue, half of which goes to the city.

Most people used the First Avenue Bridge, located two and half miles south of the high bridge, as their detour route.

City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who represents West Seattle, noted that most commuters didn’t break the rules during the bridge closure.

However, she added, “It’s sad that over 500 drivers … had such a large number of tickets, [disobeying] policies that were created for everyone’s safety. While an occasional violation is perhaps understandable, this quantity suggests disregard for the need to keep the bridge use at a level that allowed for unimpeded emergency vehicle access.”

The Spokane Street traffic cameras have an unusually low compliance rate. Overall, drivers paid about 61 percent of tickets issued by other automated traffic cameras, including red light cameras and cameras at school zones, in 2021, about twice the payment rate for Spokane Street Bridge violations.

In 2021, photo enforcement cameras along the Spokane Street Bridge issued 89,041 citations to unauthorized drivers on the low bridge. This accounted for nearly half—46 percent—of the 192,432 camera citations issued citywide that year. In 2022, before the West Seattle Bridge reopened in September, drivers using the lower bridge racked up another 41,535 citations, for a total of more than 130,000 tickets on the bridge.

According to Seattle Municipal Court data, drivers have paid just 32 percent of these tickets. The court suspended late fees and stopped sending outstanding tickets to collections at the beginning of the pandemic. But starting at the end of January, drivers who have failed to pay their fines will be subject to late fees.

The court also plans to start sending unpaid fines to a collections agency, which tacks on a 15 percent fee on each ticket, as soon as the end of April.

“People with unpaid tickets from 2020-2022 should plan to respond to their tickets by January 30, 2023,” said Laura Bet, a spokeswoman for the court. “People can respond to their tickets by setting up a payment plan, setting up a community service plan if they are low-income, or scheduling a hearing.”

A handful of drivers could face some particularly hefty invoices. Two vehicles racked up more than 300 citations for crossing the Spokane Street Bridge without authorization in 2021 alone, according to the data. Another 35 drivers amassed more than 100 tickets each and more than 500 accumulated more than 20 citations that year. 

The city was able to deploy the cameras on the low bridge as part of a pilot program after the state legislature expanded the city’s authority to use automated cameras to enforce traffic laws. The new law also allows camera enforcement when drivers ”block the box” by stopping in intersections at red lights.

State law dictates that half of the revenue for the pilot goes to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission to fund bicycle, pedestrian and non-motorized safety projects. SDOT is using its half of the money to add accessible signals that vibrate and chirp to some pedestrian crossings.

The Spokane Street traffic cameras have an unusually low compliance rate. Overall, drivers paid about 61 percent of tickets issued by other automated traffic cameras, including red light cameras and cameras at school zones, in 2021, about twice the payment rate for Spokane Street Bridge violations.

Before the pandemic, drivers paid 74 percent of citations from photo enforcement cameras issued in 2018 and 2019, according to data from the court.

A spokesperson for SDOT declined to comment on the large number of tickets drivers racked up on the Spokane St. Bridge.

10 thoughts on “Unpaid Tickets from West Seattle Bridge Violations Add Up to Millions”

  1. I am definitely one of the two drivers with over 300 tickets – I made the decision to use the low bridge after weighing the pros and cons. I decided I was okay with waiting the seven years for all that debt to fall off my credit, as I’m too broke to pay these tolls, and make too little for credit to impact my life. I also plan on replacing my vehicle next month to avoid the registration issue. Given the context of my own life, now and at the time, this made more sense, and certainly didn’t cause any problems for emergency vehicles.

  2. Hope you will have an investigative piece on why there are more fatal car/pedesterian accidents in minority neighbourhoods [say Rainier Ave] in Seattle than non-minority areas. Is it the immigrant community [which didn’t grow up around cars] living in those areas? Legalizing marijuana? Infrastructure issues?

    Think it important seeing how bas things are getting around here.

  3. Default their registrations. If you don’t pay the ticket, you can’t register your car. Make it so!

  4. seems like some people need to lose their vehicles — not their licenses but the personal property they use to break the law — since as the previous commenter says, a ticket or being sent to collections means nothing. Good credit is useful for getting a mortgage but how many of the drivers cited will ever need to worry about that? Impound a few cars and see what happens.

    But to echo the commenter above, Seattle is very selective about what laws it enforces. Neither a bleeding heart liberal or lawnorder conservative…I just think some basic consistency would help. We see that property rights are all that matter (why the eco blocks are tolerated, even as a sitting council member flouts the law with them around her business) so tackle this as a property issue and impound cars if people don’t drive them properly.

  5. In an earlier an Publicola post this month, readers suggested that the City do something about all the illegal ecoblocks installed by businesses and homeowners to prevent homeless RV campers from parking on City owned streets. Of course this will never happen because the City of Seattle has made enforcing any laws the lowest priority. If it’s not really illegal to smoke (or sell) meth in public, why should the law on ecoblocks be enforced either? Why would anybody worry about traffic cameras sending out tickets in Seattle? Maybe the tickets get sent to collections, but if your credit score is already crap, why care? I just learned that peeing on a Metro bus isn’t even illegal… it didn’t even get the dude kicked off the bus. Read in the Seattle Times a few months back the Seattle Police stopped investigating sexual assault cases for awhile. I’m not at all sure Lizz Giordano even wrote this post. Of course a large number of people in Seattle are no longer fallowing basic traffic laws. Just driving around the City shows you that.

    Coming soon to Publicola: A heart wrenching story about some losers living in a van who have racked up $20,000 worth of tickets in Seattle (parking tickets, driving without current tabs or insurance, and hundreds of traffic camera violations). Of course these poor souls shouldn’t be held accountable! They’re homeless after all. The Seattle Left lives in these strange double standard loops completely removed from reality. Can I live in motorhome without current license plates or insurance and park it illegally or not? Because if that’s the case, (and it is) Good luck with getting many other motorists to fallow the law. Either the City enforces basic civil law or it doesn’t.

    1. Tacomee, we almost agree on something. My single caveat is thus though: businesses first. As they represent groups of people as opposed to individuals and have more capital/community power, the enforcement of basic civil laws should fall upon their heads before it does the general public. That means removing eco-blocks, e-bikes blocking the sidewalks and sandwich board signs before sweeping the homeless. With greater power, profit, or position should come greater responsibility you see.

      1. Ahh, no, we don’t agree. The law is the law, there isn’t any “businesses first” clause. Nobody gets held to a higher standard than anybody else. You hate those ecoblocks. I get that. Yeah, they are illegal and dangerous. But so are the unlicensed motorhomes that caused the ecoblocks to be dropped in the first place. The law says they all go…. motorhomes, ecoblocks, garbage…. and streets stay clear.

        Seattle gets caught in are these wild double standard loops where the Left wants laws applied to different groups in different ways. That’s not justice and it doesn’t work. There are only 2 choices. Clear the streets or don’t.

      2. It isn’t a businesses first clause. It is instead a very simple Federalist concept: that rights come with responsibilities. And it isn’t just businesses. I would include the government, especially police officers, to that higher standard too. Anyone who has more rights or power than the average person needs to be scrutinized more heavily for the good of the general public.

        This was a concept this country was founded on, and many seem to forget. The well regulated militia had firearms registration, the upper classes paid for fire departments and libraries out of their pockets, etc. The Founding Fathers would be tarring and feathering ecoblock using business owners and riding them out of town on a rail.

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