Guide to Understanding the Openings and Closings of the Hood Canal Bridge

Thousands of vehicles cross the Hood Canal Bridge every day. The floating bridge that carries State Route 104 across the Hood Canal, connecting the Olympic and Kitsap Peninsulas, is the longest of its kind in a saltwater tidal basin and the third longest floating bridge in the world overall. Since opening in 1961, it’s become an important link for local residents and travelers.

The average number of vehicles that cross each weekday, as recorded by the Hood Canal video cams, is nearly 15,000, and on the weekend, that number is closer to 19,000, with the majority of trips made by residents of Port Ludlow and Port Townsend. During the week, one-third of those travelers use it for work, while weekend trips are mostly recreational, according to a survey given to area residents.

When the Hood Canal Bridge is open, we take it for granted, driving across without a care. But, when it’s closed, we realize just how vital it really is. As one of the world's longest floating bridges, a closure can turn what would be a 1.5 mile trip into a 115-mile journey around Hood Canal. Unlike other floating bridges in the state, as this bridge sits in salt water, the harsh and corrosive environment results in a need for daily maintenance to ensure it functions for both marine and vehicular traffic. Fortunately, when maintenance or construction work needs to be done, it’s usually conducted at night, when there are few travelers that need to use it. The Washington Department of Transportation notes that they work hard to condense any closures down to as few days and as few hours as possible, scheduling them at night when there are lower traffic volumes.

In the scheme of things, a bridge closure typically affects few residents – there are only rare closures that happen during regular commute hours. causing problems for many. And, when that does happen, everything does not come to a halt – there are numerous contingency plans put into place.

So far in 2017, the bridge has been shut down just once for weather, due to brutal winds that wreaked havoc across the region in early February. The drawspan must be opened during heavy winds to relieve pressure on the bridge. This bridge isn’t like the floating bridges in Seattle, as those cross a lake, and aren’t subject to tidal forces. The Hood Canal Bridge endures the daily stress of tidal swings, and when fierce winds hit during bad weather, it intensifies the force that’s being exerted on the bridge, with pressure strong enough that it could damage important components. The wind storm “season” is from October through March, and while it’s impossible to predict how often one will hit during this period, it’s rare to experience them more than once or twice a season, meaning during those five months, it’s likely to be open for travel 99% of the time.

Short Bridge Closures

Shorter closures can occur as well, as long established law requires that boats have the right-of-way over vehicles, when the bridge blocks the path of marine traffic. The Department of Transportation has an agreement to prevent some seasonal drawspan openings, and between May 22 and September 30 each year, private vessels are prohibited from requiring an opening during peak afternoon commute hours, from 3 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. daily. That rule doesn’t apply to commercial, U.S Navy or other Department of Defense vessels. When the bridge has to be closed to allow marine traffic to pass, it can take anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes before it’s opened again.

Contingency Plans for Bridge Closure

When there are planned bridge closures, the Transportation Department develops various solutions for different bridge users, whether commuters, medical patients or something else.

For example, in 2009 during a six week closure, there were several free water shuttles available to transport passengers between Jefferson and Kitsap County, as well as free bus service to get them to departure points and from landing points to various destinations. Public transit modified routes, and expanded service, to make it easier for residents to get from points throughout the Peninsula, including Port Ludlow, to downtown Seattle as well.

Those with medical appointments were able to reserve a spot on a “medical bus,” which met water shuttles for transport to Kitsap County medical facilities, and there was also a free service using the Port Townsend ferry to get people to the Seattle area in need of essential treatment. Military veterans receiving care in the Seattle area had special transportation options as well.

In a medical emergency, local emergency service agencies have contingency plans to ensure care, including the water shuttle for after-hours transports, medical airlift and more.

Bridge Alerts

A great way to limit the effect bridge closures can have is to sign up for bridge alerts. You’ll get updates on closures by subscribing (for free) to Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) email or text alerts. It includes alerts to bridge closures as well as construction updates and traffic conditions. Click here to subscribe. You can also subscribe to text alerts by texting 468311 with the words “wsdot hood.”

Additionally, there are notifications of scheduled drawspan openings on the Hood Canal Bridge Area Traffic Alerts and Cameras web page here, and more information and updates are posted on the WSDOT Facebook page too.

Another site to sign up for to receive insider updates is Nextdoor.com. This is a social networking site that is specific to neighborhoods and towns. It can be very helpful for a myriad of things, from alerting neighbors to be on the lookout if one of your pets wanders off, selling or giving away items, when you’re looking for local service recommendations and much more. When there are bridge closures and one of your neighbors is affected, they may use the site to post that information as well. The Port Ludlow neighborhood page can be found here.

By law, WSDOT is required to open the Hood Canal Bridge drawspan to mariners within one hour’s notice, and motorists are advised to expect up to 60-minute delays with each opening. For planned construction, motorists can expect to be notified well in advance, generally months and sometimes even years.

When it comes to weather, the winds are watched closely, and automated systems are used to inform WSDOT workers when speeds are climbing. When they reach or exceed 40 miles per hour for 15 minutes or more, the crews consider closing the bridge to traffic, and opening up the drawspan. The decision may also involve wind directions, strong tides, whether or not wind and waves are affecting drivers and other factors. In this case of course, there may not be much time for advanced notice, although you can be assured that the decision to close is not taken lightly – at the same time public safety has to come first, as WSDOT points out. Crews can see real-time wind speed, peak gusts and wind direction, and conditions are monitored closely from the control tower.

Closures due to Submarines/Military

There are no advanced alerts for submarines and their support vessels for security reasons, and you may notice that WSDOT does not show them passing through the Hood Canal Bridge due to Homeland Security measures put into place following the 9/11 attacks. Be aware that these types of vessels take longer, requiring both sides of the bridge to be retracted. Smaller escort vessels pass through first followed by the submarine, as soon as all of them have crossed through, the operator begins the closure of the drawspans. The two 300-feet floating spans are massive, and take time to get moving, and then slow down again until they’re locked together. The entire process of opening and then shutting the drawspans, ensuring they are engaged and locked, can take a while, typically about an hour, but once they’re back in place, the bridge is then opened up again to vehicle traffic.

Bridge closures vs continuous traffic backups

When comparing the few bridge closures every year to the traffic backups in the congested Seattle area, you’ll quickly realize that the real nightmare isn’t when the Hood Canal Bridge closes at all. Based on TomTom’s historical database for 2016, traffic in Seattle ranked as the second worst in the nation for evening congestion and tied for fourth-worst for overall congestion levels, behind only Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. Traffic caused a 34% spike in extra travel time in 2016, up 3% from the year before. TomTom also noted that Seattle drivers who typically spend one hour driving each day are wasting 148 hours per year due to congestion.

Odds are, when you drive any of the freeways throughout the Seattle area and its suburbs, you’ll going to be traveling at a crawl. You won’t be stopped completely, like you would be when the Hood Canal Bridge closes, allowing you to get out and stretch your legs, read a book or at least do something productive while you’re waiting. No, you’ll have to keep your hands on the wheel, as you drive 5 miles-per-hour, wishing you were doing anything else but driving in traffic. Many of us who live in Port Ludlow have been there, done that, and avoid it as much as possible. We’re okay with those occasional bridge closures when we think about that.

What to do when you’re stopped

While no one enjoys feeling stuck, there are a number of ways to make that wait time more productive. Instead of looking at it as wasted time spent in a steel trap, think of it as time away from the stress of the outside world, in your own sanctuary. It can be a time for reflection, self-improvement and, perhaps even fun.

Read a book. If you were in slow-moving traffic, you’d be relegated to audio books, but because your vehicle isn’t going anywhere until the bridge opens up, you can read an actual book. In fact, you might want to keep one in your car for that specific purpose if you travel the bridge a lot. While there is unlikely to be enough closures that are lengthy enough to finish it, it may give you something to actually look forward to when it closures do happen.

Exercise. No, you can’t leave your vehicle and go for a hike, but you can get out and stretch your legs a bit as long as you’re nearby. There are also a number of exercises you can do, even in the relatively confined space of your vehicle. Strengthen your core by placing your hands against the roof, pushing up with your arms and squeezing your abs at the same time. Hold that pose for 10 seconds and release. Repeat as many times as you can. That action strengthens your arms, shoulders, back and core all at once. Strengthen your arms by holding the steering wheel at 10 and 2, and then pushing down on it for a few seconds; release and repeat.

You can get some good stretches in too. Stretch your neck by tilting your head to one side and holding it there for about 10 seconds. Do the same thing with the other side, as well as tilting it forwards and back. Stretch your back by holding the steering wheel at 10 and 2, and rounding your spine forward. Hold that position for about 15 seconds. The seated twist is a great yoga pose you can do right in the driver’s seat. Stay there with your feet firmly planted on the car floor, with your arms resting at your side. Peel your back away from the seat, inhale and allow the crown of your head to reach toward the ceiling without lifting your chin. Exhale and draw your belly in, twisting to the right while placing your left hand on the arm rest at your right. Repeat on the other side.

Deep breathing. Deep breathing is easy to do in your vehicle too. It helps relieve stress and provides other benefits too, such as helping you feel calmer, less anxious, lowering blood pressure and even relieving pain. It begins with exhaling, to empty your lungs completely so that you can fully inhale. First exhale slowly through your nose while counting to five. At the end of the breath, pause for two counts and then slowly inhale while counting to five, expanding your belly as your breathe in. Repeat 10 times. Focusing on your counting helps prevent the mind from wandering, keeping you in the moment.

Make those calls you’ve been putting off. While you can’t use your cell phone while you’re driving, you can use it while you’re stopped. So, now is your chance to catch up with friends and family, outside of text messages and emails. That can take up a good chunk of time, not to mention being good for your mental health, offering the chance to vent, get advice or just chat about the weather. If you need to make appointments or call the cable company to ask a question about your bill, you can do that too. By the time you’re done, you may have accomplished quite a bit you wouldn’t have otherwise.

Learn all the words to one of your favorite songs. You probably have at least one song you really like, but only know maybe one or two of the lines. This is your chance to play it over and over until you know all the lines. Sing it loudly – it’s a great way to relieve stress and pass the time.

Do some cleanup. Keep a garbage bag in the car with you, and you can use the time to clean out the car, your purse, or your wallet. You can finally get rid of all of those old useless receipts, business cards, scraps of paper and what have you. Look under your seats, who knows what’s under there after all this time – you might even discover some useful items, or even better, some cash.