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October 28, 2014 at 11:38 AM

Tuesday’s commute: Why is it so bad?


UPDATE 3:55 p.m.

A Sound Transit bus went the wrong way on Highway 520, before turning around and leaving the highway — proving that not all the traffic jams today can be blamed on the rain.






And the westbound lanes of Highway 18 remain closed near Interstate 90 at Snoqualmie, because of a serious-injury crash involving two semi-trucks and a van, critically injuring an 81-year-old man in the van.

Today’s multiple crashes might just be a random bunching, said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington. But with more congestion and worsening pavement, such bad luck could occur more often, he said.

“In rainy conditions, in our roadways that are in continually worse repair, it could be there is more water on the roadway and it’s not draining fast enough,” Hallenbeck said. Another possibility is that, “as congestion has gotten worse, people are driving more aggressively than they used to do,” he said, echoing some conjecture by the State Patrol (below). Distracted driving might be a factor, Hallenbeck said, but he doesn’t have statistical proof.

Sound Transit spokesman Bruce Gray said the agency doesn’t know yet why a bus driver would enter the wrong lanes. The bus was empty and returning to a maintenance base, Gray said.

UPDATE 1:08 p.m. | There were at least four more blocking crashes Tuesday, two of which are cleared:

  • A car overturned around 12:50 p.m.  going uphill into West Seattle on westbound Fauntleroy Way Southwest, blocking both lanes and hindering traffic that arrives from the West Seattle Bridge.
  • All four lanes of Highway 18 are blocked near the I-90 junction in Snoqualmie, in both directions, by a crash at 12:38 p.m.
  • Another crash happened on the westbound I-90 exit to Rainier Avenue South around noon, blocking the route for about 40 minutes.
  • A crash on westbound Highway 520, near Interstate 405, happened at 10:36 a.m. and blocked traffic for 10 minutes.

ORIGINAL POST | Self-driving cars or suburban light rail can’t arrive soon enough for Seattle commuters. At least eight blocking crashes were reported Tuesday morning.

Congestion at 8 a.m. was so bad the travel time from Everett to Seattle reached 130 minutes. The state Department of Transportation grumbled on Twitter:  “I can’t remember a morning where 1 route (SB 5 into Seattle) has had so many collisions. Please focus and give each other space.”

The WSDOT traffic map at 8 a.m.

The WSDOT traffic map at 8 a.m.

Sometimes a rainstorm loosens oil on the road and causes slicks, but there’s been plenty of rain already.  Drivers have now had two weeks to get used to wet conditions, said Trooper Chris Webb, King County spokesman for the State Patrol.

“It’s really kind of mind-boggling over the last month. I’m really perplexed with how many (accidents) there are,” Webb said. He suspects some drivers are accelerating whenever they get past a clog.

“After the bottleneck through downtown Seattle, the speeds start picking up. There are lots of puddles, it’s still dark,” he said. During heavy rain last Wednesday, troopers responded to 110 crashes and incidents, he said.

This morning’s crashes included:

  • Highway 18 westbound near I-5 at 8:36 a.m., taking 63 minutes to clear.
  • I-405 northbound near Highway 522, at 9:32 a.m., the second one of the morning there.
  • I-405 northbound near Highway 522, at 8:39 a.m., taking 45 minutes to clear.
  • I-5 Express Lanes southbound at the Ship Canal Bridge, at 7:14 a.m., taking 71 minutes to clear.
  • I-5 southbound at the West Seattle Bridge exit, at 7:37 a.m., taking 16 minutes to clear.
  • Highway 9 at 60th Street Northeast, southbound, at 7:28 a.m., cleared in 18 minutes.
  • I-90 eastbound at Rainier Avenue South, at 6:29 a.m., the second of the morning, cleared in four minutes.
  • I-90 eastbound at Rainier Avenue South, at 6:39 a.m., cleared in two minutes.

In a metro area of more than 2 million people, Interstate 5 carries 260,000 vehicles per day just across the Ship Canal Bridge, and another 245,000 or so on I-405 past Totem Lake.  It takes only a few people in that crowd to foul up, and the region slows to a crawl.

Congestion relief specifically is no longer an official top priority of Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT); on the other hand, the agency has been a national leader in deploying incident-response crews to clear blockages. Traffic delays have grown considerably worse since 2011, as the region recovers from recession.  The agency’s 2014-17 goals include to  “align the operation of all modes in corridors to optimize throughput capacity to move people and freight.”

WSDOT spokesman Mike Allende says the agency doesn’t have a clear answer as to why there are so many crashes, but they could just be a by-product of more cars on the road at busy times.

You could blame the WSDOT, the Legislature or indirectly the voters for failing to maintain highways, whose ruts collect water and lead to cars hydroplaning.  The state has been resurfacing I-5 in its worst places and plans to launch another round of spot repairs in north Seattle, at an estimated cost of $12 million, whenever the rain stops.

But the WSDOT lacks the more than $1 billion needed to thoroughly rebuild I-5 through Seattle — a problem identified back in 2008 when then WSDOT Secretary Paula Hammond said political realities kept her from asking Olympia for that money.







Comments | More in General news, Traffic & Transit | Topics: traffic congestion; rain


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