Traffic trouble: What went wrong on I-90 and how WSDOT plans to avoid it this summer

KING COUNTY, Wash. — After drivers were stuck on westbound Interstate 90 for up to six hours last fall during expansion joint repairs, the Washington State Department of Transportation is promising that the same mistakes won’t happen with major construction projects this year.

WSDOT has several major closures ahead, including two currently scheduled for this summer that impact Interstate 405 and Interstate 5.

A KIRO 7 investigation uncovered major issues in the closure of the I-90 westbound floating bridge from Mercer Island to Seattle, including gaps in planning and communication with the Washington State Patrol and apps like Google Maps.

Cars were bumper to bumper; drivers were running out of gas and even abandoning their vehicles. One trooper described the scene as “a total disaster,” and “a parking lot.”

One 911 caller told the dispatcher, “The bridge is closed on I-90 heading to Seattle until Monday morning.”

But the dispatcher argued with her, saying, “No.”

“It’s closed!” the caller said. “Finito!”

For all intents and purposes, it was. The interstate itself was blocked off at the Island Crest Way exit; the only way across the I-90 floating bridge was detouring through Mercer Island and then taking the ramp onto the bridge, which bypassed the expansion joint work. The big problem? The streets of Mercer Island — as well as multiple lanes of I-90 westbound — were brought to a standstill.

“Everyone was just kind of perplexed and also frustrated,” Dora Yung, one of the drivers stuck on Friday, Sept. 23, told KIRO 7.

KIRO 7 went through dash camera video, 911 calls, and emails to find out why the I-90 closure turned out so badly.

It began with the signs, which said “I-90 westbound closure from Island Crest Way,” not “bridge closed.”

“After this situation, we started looking more carefully at the signage that we had, for example, in this case,” WSDOT spokesperson Tom Pearce said. “It probably would have been good to say ‘No access to Seattle.’”

Pearce admits there are a lot of lessons WSDOT learned from the debacle, including better planning and coordination with other agencies and cities.

He said WSDOT did not do planning with the city of Bellevue before the closure, despite the closure heavily impacting the city, especially Bellevue Way and I-405. He said WSDOT also experienced turnover among employees working on the project.

“I think the saddest part is that they weren’t working together,” Yung said. “I mean, the finger-pointing was … it was kind of shocking to me because it just kept on going.”

Yung was trying to get back to her child, who was on Mercer Island with Yung’s parents. She was stuck between the ramp from Bellevue Way onto the interstate and the East Mercer Way exit.

“After about an hour I started to get concerned because I was breastfeeding my daughter and I needed to get back,” she said.

Yung told KIRO 7 she called the city of Mercer Island, who told her to call WSDOT, who told her to call the Washington State Patrol.

“Having been there for five hours, I finally made the call to 911,” she said.

In that 911 call, you can hear Yung’s desperation.

“Please, do something to help us,” Yung told the dispatcher, describing her own inability to get to and feed her child, children trapped in a school bus in front of her, and elderly people sitting in cars nearby.

“We’re letting them know, OK?” the dispatcher said.

Another problem was the fact that navigation apps like Google and Apple Maps were not reflecting accurate information.

One 911 caller said her phone was telling her there was a traffic accident on I-90 westbound, not a closure.

“I was just curious … if you guys had looked at that at that time and realized that the traffic apps were not really reflecting reality at that point,” KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon said.

“We were aware of that,” Pearce said. “And we tried to reach out as much as we could. You know, we had limited capabilities, but we were trying to reach out to them at that time.”

KIRO 7 discovered WSDOT did not have contacts at Google Maps or Apple Maps that it could reach out to in an emergency. It’s an ability that Caltrans, California’s transportation department, told KIRO 7 it’s had since 2016.

“We think of Seattle as a really tech-forward city,” KIRO 7 reporter Linzi Sheldon said. “Why didn’t we have that before?”

“We had some challenges just finding the right people that we needed to talk to at each of these apps,” Pearce said. “We had a person with one of them. That person left, and all of a sudden we had to start again from scratch. So we now do have good contacts with each of these.”

And KIRO 7 discovered that the project wasn’t flagged as a major closure to the Washington State Patrol, but rather a simple lane reduction. There was no planning with troopers or requests for additional officers.

In WSP dash cam video, one trooper can be heard apologetically telling people stuck in traffic, “There’s two troopers out on duty right now — that’s it.”

Finally, there was the ramp that drivers used to cut through Mercer Island and get across the bridge.

“The city of Mercer Island had requested that we leave the ramp open for their people to get into Seattle,” Pearce said.

“Right, but at that point it was pretty obvious that — I mean, there was traffic chaos there,” Sheldon said. “So why wouldn’t the state on its own close that ramp?”

“Whenever we have a situation like that, we want to work with our city partners,” Pearce said.

Pearce said WSDOT finally closed it to most traffic around 7 p.m.

“Was keeping that ramp open across the bridge a mistake?” Sheldon asked.

“We probably should not have kept that ramp open,” he said.

KIRO 7 asked the city of Mercer Island several times about the decision to keep the ramp open during the project and when, if at any point, the city asked the state to close the ramp.

A Mercer Island spokesperson did not respond to the questions. He sent a statement that said in part, “Last September’s I-90 closure resulted in an extremely difficult situation for many people trying to cross the Island on I-90. As WSDOT shared previously, they committed to cities that changes have been made to avoid a situation like this from happening again.”

Dora Yung said her 82-year-old father finally parked his car as close to the freeway as possible, walked along the I-90 pedestrian trail to get to her car, and replaced her so she could get back to her daughter.

“It was very disappointing,” she said. “And it just doesn’t leave much trust in, you know, in the government agencies or safety agencies around us.”

All these lessons learned are being put to the test. This summer, lane closures are currently scheduled on I-405 in Renton to repair the Lind Avenue bridge. This will include a weekend-long southbound closure, single and double lane closures, and six to eight nighttime closures on the southbound side.

Closures are also currently expected on I-5 this summer for repairs from South Seattle all the way to Tukwila. This will include weekend-long lane reductions and multiple lane closures at night.

Next year, major extended work will start on eight and half miles of I-5 from Seattle’s Yesler Way to the Northgate area. The first phase, from Yesler to the Ship Canal Bridge, is expected to go from 2024 to 2026, with the second phase north of the Ship Canal Bridge beginning in 2027. WSDOT says drivers on I-5 can expect “significant disruptions and backups” and that “expert traffic engineers are studying different lane closure options.”