Alaskan Way Viaduct closure: Drivers make first commute

VIDEO: Transportation experts warn traffic could get worse later this week

SEATTLE — Drivers made the first weekday morning commute Monday without the Alaskan Way Viaduct since before Interstate 5 was built.

WSDOT warned commuters to allot 30 to 40 minutes more time to get to their destinations and to carpool, take public transportation or work from home.

"It wasn't so bad actually," said Miranda Karli, who drove in from Bellevue.

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Transportation officials said it was clear that people left home earlier than usual, because peak traffic that usually comes later in the morning happened instead around 6:30 a.m.

Mark Rutledge proclaimed his morning drive from Edmonds "better than most days."

In fact, by the time he started his drive south after 9 a.m., the wave of the worst traffic had already gone by.

Surface streets into downtown Seattle were starting to fill in about 6 a.m., especially Fourth Avenue South, where traffic was jammed.

Early on, travel times around the Sound were not much higher than usual, but later Monday morning, I-5 was heavy, as expected, and travel times into Seattle and Bellevue from the south were about 20 minutes longer than normal.

Commuters reported more people were on the Northline Sounder trains and before sunrise, a line formed at the King County Water Taxi, which added a second boat between West Seattle and Downtown.

"This is definitely twice as busy as usual and parking was very crazy this morning, usually I get a spot right up close and today I had to walk pretty far," said passenger Dangelei Fox.

King County reported ridership on the water taxi run tripled Monday from this time a year ago.

But the boats ran at just 50 percent capacity, meaning there's plenty more room for people who want to avoid congestion.

Commuters shouldn't get too comfortable though, as people might at first take public transportation, then revert to driving alone.

"Please don't do that this week. Maintain your vigilance over the course of the week," King County executive Dow Constantine said of commuters falling into a pattern.

The viaduct, which carried about 90,000 vehicles daily, closed permanently Friday at 10 p.m. That stretch of SR 99 is expected to remain closed until early February when it will be replaced by the new SR 99 Tunnel.

The tunnel isn’t being opened immediately because workers need weeks to realign the highway with the new route. The closure is the longest major highway shutdown in Puget Sound history.

The viaduct is being torn down after years of debate of how to replace it. The structure was damaged in a 2001 earthquake, and an analysis showed it would collapse in a large earthquake. The viaduct was opened April 4, 1953, and its last onramp was completed in 1966.

"Everyone traveling in the region will be impacted," said Heather Marx, director of Downtown Mobility for the Seattle Department of Transportation. referring to people going to and through the Seattle metropolitan area.

City, King County and state officials have been doing outreach and working to ensure things run as smoothly as possible, like authorities did ahead of Los Angeles' "Carmageddon" freeway shutdown in 2011. Many feared that dayslong bridge project on one of the region's most critical freeways would lead to epic traffic jams, but it cruised to a finish ahead of schedule with no significant problems.

During the "Seattle Squeeze," school bus drivers will start their days earlier, and officials are advising commuters to work from home or adjust their work hours if they can. Those who can't are being asked to walk, bike, join a carpool or use transit including buses, light rail or water taxis — all to avoid driving solo into downtown during peak commute times.

The growth of tech giant Amazon and a population boom has spawned an abundance of construction in the Seattle area in recent years with new housing, light rail expansion and infrastructure development already straining commuters' patience.

"We've added 85,000 new people to the county in just the last two years, so these are the kinds of public spaces and destinations and mobility we need to support our growing region," Meghan Shepard, with Seattle's Transportation Department, said in a city video posted on YouTube.

Once the tunnel opens, removing the viaduct will take months, which will be followed by the creation of the new downtown waterfront area.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan recently announced legislation that would complete funding of the new waterfront area, which includes 20 acres (8 hectares) of public spaces and an elevated pathway connecting the waterfront to the historic Pike Place Market and downtown.

"After the many years of tunnel construction, the viaduct will finally be coming down, and work on the waterfront of the future will begin," Durkan said in a statement.

The tunnel plan, now estimated at $3.3 billion, was chosen by former Gov. Chris Gregoire and state lawmakers in 2009. Some city leaders argued that Seattle should tear down the viaduct and use surface streets.

"To do the surface street, which was an option, if I was to look back now in light of the growth of the city that would have been a terrible mistake," Gregoire told the Seattle Times recently.

Traffic engineers, for example, will be able to adjust traffic signal timing and send out additional buses that will be staffed and on standby. More buses in general will be deployed, and a public water taxi service from West Seattle to downtown will run more often. Drawbridges around the city will stay closed to vessels longer.

And on Interstate 5, which runs through the city, the state will convert a carpool lane to general traffic and will stage more incident-response vehicles.

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