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August 19, 2014 at 12:23 PM

Water crew causes unnecessary Aurora traffic hazard, delay

A Seattle Public Utilities crew created unnecessary traffic backups during the Tuesday morning rush by making a non-emergency hydrant repair on northbound Aurora Avenue North around 8:30 a.m., next to the old Hostess building.

Cars were stopped inside the Battery Street Tunnel, where the sudden drop from 40 mph to zero posed a potential risk of rear-end crashes. Just beyond the tunnel, one lane was blocked by a pair of utility trucks, forcing buses and cars to merge from three lanes to one, a roughly 10-minute delay.

“We could have waited to make the repairs. We should have waited until after 9 a.m,” said utilities spokesman Andy Ryan. “They know better than this. They know they’re not supposed to work on a major arterial when it’s rush hour. Someone forgot; we’ll remind them.”

Workers were repairing a hydrant that was hit by a car Friday. They have several tasks planned Tuesday, and traffic looked relatively light, so “they wanted to get a jump on the day,” said Tony Blackwell, SPU director of water transmission and distribution.  “It was an oversight on our crew’s part.” Even if it were a mid-day lane shutdown, there should have been better signage, and notice to travelers, he said. But in most cases, Blackwell said SPU tries to coordinate its major South Lake Union work to occur during bigger Seattle Department of Transportation or state Highway 99 construction closures, to avoid additional disruptions.

The episode raises wider questions about safety warnings.

The Battery Street Tunnel entrances do provide signs that flash when the tunnel is closed, for construction or a serious crash.  But it lacks a warning sign for other slowdowns, even while more than $42 million has been spent on lane-control signs to enhance safety on I-5 and I-90, with millions more for electronic messaging statewide.  The tunnel will be used at least three more years, or longer if the Highway 99 tunnel faces additional delays.

Comments | More in Traffic & Transit | Topics: Battery Street Tunnel, Mercer Street

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