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Originally published August 14, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 14, 2007 at 8:43 AM

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Commuters give transit a try

The scare tactics worked. Half the motorists who usually take northbound Interstate 5 to Seattle vanished Monday as state officials hoped.

Times transportation Reporter

The scare tactics worked.

Half the motorists who usually take northbound Interstate 5 to Seattle vanished Monday as state officials hoped, and a potential traffic nightmare turned into one of the easiest weekday drives of the year.

Will commuters' obedience continue, or will Monday's images of free-flowing freeways lure people back to the road?

"It tends to be very good until people think, 'Everything's great, let's use it,' and things fall apart," said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington.

State officials have seen the pattern on other big I-5 projects, said Jamie Holter, spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation. "Traditionally what happens is, days one and two are really nice, and days three and four are awful," she said.

Today is the second weekday of a resurfacing project that will close two to three northbound lanes, near South Spokane Street, until early Aug. 30.

Oliver Downs, lead scientist for the Kirkland-based traffic-data company Inrix, forecasts that I-5 will turn slightly more crowded today, and then:

"Tuesday to Wednesday, Wednesday to Thursday, we have a successive worsening of morning rush-hour conditions." (Downs successfully predicted Monday's light traffic.)

Northbound I-5 traffic should be stop-and-go on Thursday for 1 ½ miles south to Michigan Street, he predicts, with slowdowns extending another three miles. That's close to normal, but Interstate 405 will bog down as drivers detour to the east, he said. Then on Friday, mobility will improve again, Downs said, as people begin a three-day weekend or telecommute.

Stepping up

This week presents a chance for transit agencies to win potential converts.

Becky Means, of Tacoma, riding a Sounder commuter train for the first time, liked the experience.

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The ride was peaceful and it was nice not to deal with traffic, even if she had to stand the whole way. Means, who usually drives to her job at Swedish Medical Center, said she is considering making the train her regular mode of transportation. Riding it is free, courtesy of her employer.

The only thing stopping her is the limited train schedule. She sometimes has to work late, and would miss the last train that leaves at 5:40 p.m.

The I-5 lane closures were a "good motivator to try it out," she said.

Thousands of people switched to transit, or left home earlier, after transportation agencies raised fears of 10- or 20-mile traffic snarls. Trains and buses had enough room for the newcomers, though some complained it was tough to find park-and-ride spaces.

• Sounder's early 5:45 a.m. train from Tacoma carried 2,183 people into Seattle, or double last week's daily average of 1,035. Sound Transit has added a fifth train to its south-line service to cope with the I-5 project. Altogether, the trains brought 5,877 morning riders to Seattle, or 63 percent more than last week.

• The Elliott Bay Water Taxi carried 587 riders from West Seattle to downtown Monday morning, four times than normal.

• In Tacoma at 4:35 a.m., so many people showed up that Sound Transit put an extra bus on its 591 route to Seattle. King County Metro Transit also reported an early surge. Commuter Kim Davis says she caught her Metro 113 bus near White Center a half-hour earlier than usual, because she anticipated serious delays.

"I was trying to avoid the mess, and there was no mess to avoid," she said.

• As far as driving, the state said only 3,300 motorists an hour used northbound I-5 in the work zone, half the normal volume.

A dynamic situation

Project engineer Paul Johnson has said the worst traffic will come later when traffic is limited to one regular lane and the merge-exit lane. That could be as soon as Thursday, because construction is ahead of schedule.

Hallenbeck describes the human response as "Pavlovian," as people react to changing conditions and news updates.

He recalls being in Los Angeles for the 1984 Olympics, amid alarm that the city would choke on traffic. "The first week was great, the best traffic in the history of L.A.," he said. "The second week, it was back to normal L.A.

"I think you'll see the same kind of thing here. There'll be good days and bad days. The longer this goes on, the harder it will be for people."

But for a short stretch, he said, commuters have shown they can reorder their lives.

Staff reporters Manuel Valdes and Cara Solomon contributed to this report. Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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