New dawn coming for Aurora Avenue? Changes eyed to cut number of accidents

It would be a major face-lift for Aurora Avenue in Seattle, a multimillion dollar wish list drafted by city and state officials to try to reduce accidents on the 8-mile stretch from the Aurora Bridge north to the city limits.

But business owners say plans to restrict parking during rush hour could kill the small restaurants and shops with no off-street parking.

Called the Highway 99 North Corridor Study, the plan will be presented to the public tomorrow as part of an effort by the city, state and Metro to come up with a final plan for improving a highway that has seen an 18 percent increase in traffic over the past eight years. Today 84,000 people a day drive Aurora from the Battery Street tunnel to the city limits; state officials predict that will increase 35 percent in 15 years.

Most of what is on the wish list is unfunded projects. No money in Referendum 51, on the Nov. 5 ballot, would be used for Aurora inside Seattle city limits.

"Our goal is to keep people moving on Aurora and make it safer," said Nytasha Sowers, project manager for the State Department of Transportation.

But Faye Garneau, head of the Aurora Merchants Association, said proposed parking restrictions would kill 115 businesses.

"What they basically want to do is make Aurora Avenue into I-5 west because they have not addressed the transit problems in the city," she said.

Her association has hired an attorney and will fight new parking restrictions in court, she said.

State officials say there are six high-accident areas along Aurora and one, from Denny Way to North 59th Street, is ranked third-worst in the state with 426 accidents, including five fatalities, between 1999 and 2001. Most of the accidents were rear-end collisions.

According to Sowers, half of the fatalities on Aurora are pedestrians and bicyclists.

The proposals range from the complex, a $20 million upgrade to the Aurora Bridge, to the simple, adding no-left-turn signs on dangerous stretches between North 85th and 90th streets.

Among the proposals to be presented tomorrow:

Aurora Bridge: Opened in 1932, it now carries 108,000 vehicles a day. The state is proposing a jersey barrier down the middle of the bridge and widening lanes from the existing 9.5-11 feet to 11-11.5 feet by removing sidewalks and putting them under the bridge.

Estimated to cost $20 million, this work is unfunded and likely years away.

One of the bridge proposals certain to bring protest is a plan to close the Queen Anne exit off southbound Aurora, just south of the bridge, and diverting Queen Anne-bound traffic to Dexter Avenue North. The route would follow Dexter north to where it cuts up to Aurora and loops under the bridge to Queen Anne.

Parking restrictions: The Aurora plan calls for restricting peak-hour parking, perhaps from 3-7 p.m., southbound on Aurora from North 110th to North 72nd Street to create three travel lanes southbound. Parking is already restricted northbound during the afternoon peak and southbound during the morning peak.

City and state officials say southbound traffic on Aurora has become so congested, even in the afternoons, that they want to keep three traffic lanes open.

But Garneau, with the Aurora merchants, said it could kill some businesses that rely on street parking, particularly small restaurants that cater to early diners.

"That's it. We're done," said David Belay, who owns Cafe Noir on 103rd Street and Aurora Avenue North. His small cafe has no off-street parking. "We're just contemplating when we're closing. The effect is going to be huge."

Garneau said the stretch of Aurora from North 65th to North 145th streets is fronted by nearly 500 businesses, many of which have been in families for generations. The roadway is the second-largest area of commerce in the city, she said, with gross sales exceeding $1 billion a year and a return of sales tax to the city of more than $20 million each year.

"We can't get more development along Aurora if access is limited," she said. "This is an auto-oriented street. We are the I-5 alternative. It is crucial to maintain existing or better parking conditions to support a viable business atmosphere."

The peak-parking restrictions could go into effect next year.

"We're not creating a new main street. We're not taking property," said Sowers, who has walked Aurora to talk to merchants.

The Aurora Corridor proposal also calls for no parking on the northbound curb lane from North 38th to North 50th streets to create wider and safer lanes. And it proposes closing the southbound curb lane during the morning rush between North 50th and North 38th streets to provide a bus lane.

The city has already added no-left-turn signs across Aurora on North 87th and 88th streets, high-accident locations, agreeing not to put barriers there in an effort to appease merchants.

Other changes include pedestrian-crossing improvements on North 95th and 140th streets, and a signal or median at North 95th Street.

BAT lane: A third element to the Aurora plan, which also angers the merchants, is the creation of a Bus Access and Transit (BAT) lane on the southbound shoulder from North 145th Street to North 110th Street, similar to a lane that runs northbound between the same streets. Plans also include a bus lane southbound from North 62nd Street to North 38th Street.

"Parking and the availability of parking is essential to the success of any business area," said Garneau. "Any idea that a dedicated bus lane should be put on Aurora in either direction would cut traffic capacity by one-third. This does not improve mobility."

City officials say federal funding is pending for design of the lanes, but there is no construction money committed and construction won't start until 2004, at the earliest.

While none of the Aurora projects has been fully funded, Metro has committed $500,000 in matching funds should Seattle receive the federal grant for a bus lane.

The Aurora study is to be completed by December. But the projects themselves are years away, perhaps 10 years or longer.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or

To learn more about the study

Open house on the Aurora Corridor Study: 5-8 p.m. tomorrow, Phinney Lutheran Church Fellowship Hall, 7500 Greenwood Ave. N.