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Safety concerns grow over encampment along I-5 express lanes in Seattle

KOMO-TV Seattle 1/25/2023 Michelle Esteban, KOMO News Anchor
© Provided by KOMO-TV Seattle

There is a new safety concern over a homeless encampment along the I-5 express lanes in Seattle.

The encampment sits just north of the Ship Canal Bridge on Washington State Department of Transportation's (WSDOT) right-of-way property.

Drivers and residents said people living in the encampments are crossing the interstate to get to the other side and it's creating a danger for them and drivers.

KOMO News reached out to WSDOT, the Washington State Department of Commerce, Washington State Patrol (WSP) and the city of Seattle to find out what the agencies are doing about the danger.

A WSDOT spokesperson said in an email that kind of danger is part of the reason they are working to remove encampments along the interstate and confirmed the Ship Canal encampment is being addressed, but could not offer any other specifics.

Residents who live nearby said the encampment has been cleared before but it keeps resurfacing and getting bigger. They estimate it has been in existence for months. 

RELATED | Local residents growing frustrated with nearby encampment

"They are constantly crossing over back and forth and it is dangerous, I've heard horns honking. I'm worried about someone getting hurt or someone hurting somebody and having it on their conscience," said Troy, a homeowner who lives near the encampment on the east side of the interstate.

In the last month, Troy and others noticed a sign that borders the encampment on the west side of the Express Lanes, it reads "Do Not Enter."

"I wouldn't enter, I wouldn't go in there," said Troy, citing safety concerns.

KOMO News took the concerns of people crossing the interstate to Mayor Bruce Harrell Tuesday and asked him if the Ship Canal encampment is a priority.

"I'm always careful what to say is a priority, because, as soon as I geographically identify one area, then someone with significant needs says, well I'm not prioritized," said Harrell.

He emphasized the city's strategy is to look at the full 84 square miles of the city with a strategic approach but described the Ship Canal encampment as a significant safety concern.

"When I see people living under bridges and state right of ways it prompts me to take the action we are taking. We have to house people and we have to treat people, I hope they listen to those in decision-making roles like myself because we have to do this work and I think it's getting done," said the mayor, noting the encampment "to some extent is not our property."

There's no timeline for when the encampment will be removed and the unhoused connected with housing and services, but WSDOT said Rapid Housing Funding from the Department of Commerce and the joint work of the Right of Way Safety Initiative are being put to use there.

RELATED | Seattle homeless encampment near I-5 cleared through Gov. Inslee's initiative

"The Ship Canal Bridge is one of the areas we’re focusing on as part of our overall efforts, including using new funds provided to the Department of Commerce by the Legislature to help move people off of inherently dangerous rights of way and toward shelter and the path to permanent housing. This is a partnership between several state agencies as well as county and city representatives and outreach groups," a spokesperson with WSDOT said.

WSDOT insists its responsibility and expertise are limited to clean up and restoration of the property but works closely with local partners who have access to the resources and human services required to provide a pathway to temporary and permanent housing.

KOMO News asked the agency if they have a timeline for that but were told it depends on housing availability, and those encampment removal timelines are not announced.

WSP said the encampments are part of Patrol's District 2, which includes all of King County, and that commanders and troopers are "well aware of this particular area and are actively monitoring and addressing it as time and resources allow."

RELATED: Seattle couple explains why they're building a home in the median of and interstate ramp

So far in 2023, there have been five reports in the area and the calls often involve people in crisis and/or sometimes experiencing homelessness known as 'Pedestrian Incidents' or PED reports. In 2022, there were 46 reports in the same area, according to WSP.

But for comparison, District 2 had more than 5,000 PED reports for all of 2022.

However, WSDOT's Traffic Management Center said they are not aware of any reports of people crossing the interstate near the encampment in the last month.

"The freeway is not designed for any sort of pedestrian traffic, and the danger to all involved is one of the prime motivators for the Right of Way Safety Initiative," said Chris Loftus with WSP. "Unhoused people occasionally darting through traffic in some areas is an unfortunate episodic outgrowth of the proximity of the camps to vehicular traffic, and WSP can respond to those episodes but usually after the fact and sometimes after the tragedy."

The state said the initiative efforts are currently focused on Interstate 5. It's the busiest major highway system, with hundreds of thousands of travelers per day. Those determinations are also made considering factors such as immediate safety risk to the traveling public, neighbors, and the people living within the encampment.

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