Seattle highway closure spooks city's commuters

AP News
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Posted: Oct 20, 2011 6:45 PM
Seattle highway closure spooks city's commuters

The so-called "Carmageddon" in Los Angeles this summer was a bust _ but its Seattle-based sequel "Viadoom" is being billed as the real deal.

Beginning Friday night, one of Seattle's two north-south highways will close for nine days through downtown so crews can demolish the southern end of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the aging, earthquake-vulnerable elevated highway being replaced by a waterfront tunnel.

Transit officials have mailed people free bus tickets, added ferry trips across Elliott Bay to West Seattle and even met with downtown businesses to encourage them to allow telecommuting. Nevertheless, there's no shortage of fretting about where the 110,000 vehicles that take State Route 99 over the viaduct on a typical weekday will go.

"Caution: `Viadoom' Ahead," The Seattle Times blared in a front page headline Thursday. The city's Cascade Bicycle Club warned of the "second-coming of `Carmageddon'" and urged people to dust off their bikes to avoid the mess.

"There's not one detour route that can carry that amount of traffic," state Transportation Department spokesman Travis Phelps warned Thursday. "If drivers continue to do their everyday thing, you could see widespread congestion across Puget Sound."

In July, a 10-mile section of one of the nation's busiest highways _ Interstate 405 in Los Angeles _ was closed for a weekend as workers tore down part of a bridge. Commuters feared "Carmageddon," but drivers largely kept off the road. Traffic was fine.

Traffic planners in LA had several things going for them: It was a weekend, it was summer, and the closure was just a couple of days.

Seattle's shutdown will encompass a workweek. It's fall, so fewer people are on vacation. And it will probably rain _ a factor that can make for bad traffic even when major roads are open.

Officials are hopeful that Seattle residents have gotten the message and will do what they need to do to avoid an epic traffic jam. Though it's inconvenient, they expect people will be willing to change their commuting patterns for a week.

Highway 99 and I-5 are Seattle's two major north-south arterials, and given the city's shape _ essentially an hourglass bordered by water _ those routes are crucial. Highway 99 is also an important road for residents of West Seattle, because it links the West Seattle Bridge with downtown. The viaduct was built in the 1950s and damaged in the region's 2001 earthquake.

Previous closures of most I-5 lanes for repaving presented relatively little congestion, but the 99 closure is unprecedented in duration and in that the highway will be closed entirely, Phelps said.

Lauren Braden, who often takes the bus to her job at the Washington Trails Association downtown, said she and two colleagues live in West Seattle and have been trying to figure out how to deal with the closure. They're set to work from home late next week if necessary, but on Monday and Tuesday they have events they can't miss.

"Who knows what's going to work," she said. "Two of us have children in preschool in West Seattle. We can't show up at preschool at 8 p.m. just because there's a bad commute."

Braden said she's leaning toward taking the water taxi _ and planners hope many other West Seattle residents do likewise. The city will allow commuters to park for free on certain streets and at a park near by the ferry's dock.

King County Metro, which oversees the region's bus service, has been preparing for the viaduct's replacement by adding bus service over the past two years. Eleven bus routes that usually take the viaduct will be rerouted during the closure.

On Monday, Metro mailed pairs of free bus tickets to 70,000 households in West Seattle and along Highway 99 to encourage people to try public transit.

Three politicians who live in West Seattle _ King County Executive Dow Constantine, County Councilman Joe McDermott and Seattle City Councilman Tom Rasmussen _ planned to highlight alternative means of getting to work on Friday morning before the closure. They were to meet up in West Seattle and then race _ Constantine by bus, McDermott by ferry and Rasmussen by bike _ to City Hall.

"We just want to do as much as we can to encourage people to change their driving habits not just for the next nine days, but really for the next five or six years" as the viaduct is replaced, Rasmussen said.

Traffic will be shifted onto the first of two new, side-by-side bridges at the end of the nine-day closure. As inconvenient as the closure might be, Braden said she's glad they're doing it.

"Every time I'm on the viaduct, I'm thinking about an earthquake," she said.

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Johnson can be reached at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle