More snow, wind on the way Monday evening
Routine commutes Monday evening turned into three-, four- and five-hour ordeals as cars spun out on icy streets, buses stalled in gridlocked traffic, and major road closures left drivers stranded with no options but to sit and wait in the cold. The morning's commute likely will be just as treacherous with subfreezing temperatures predicted to keep the region's roadways icy.
Seattle Times staff reporters
InformationLatest weather forecast: www.wrh.noaa.gov/sew
State road conditions
and traffic alerts:
Emergency shelter information:
Metro Transit weather alerts: kingcounty.gov/metro/
Sound Transit rider alerts:
School closures and late starts: schoolreport.org
Snowfall, stiff winds and freezing temperatures turned the Monday evening commute into an epic nightmare for thousands of motorists — almost two years after a string of snowstorms caught Seattle officials unprepared and promising to do better.
Routine drives home turned into three-, four- and five-hour ordeals as cars spun out on icy streets, buses stalled in gridlocked traffic and major road closures left drivers with no options but to sit and idle in their trapped cars.
One cancer patient left a treatment center on Seattle's First Hill at 3:30 p.m. headed south on Interstate 5. By 9 p.m., he had only reached Boeing Field.
"Not a single vehicle is moving on a five-lane highway. I have medicine waiting for me at a drugstore in Des Moines," said Leonard Sigman, angry and frustrated as he spoke by cellphone from his car.
Many commuters left work early to beat the traffic and falling temperatures, only to find themselves stuck on streets approaching Interstate 5 and Highway 99.
The state Department of Transportation (DOT) decided not to open the I-5 express lanes northbound for the evening commute, saying it couldn't de-ice entrance and exit routes in time. Seattle's decision to close Highway 99 from the Battery Street Tunnel through the viaduct in late afternoon because of icy conditions added to the massive backups throughout the city.
Roundly criticized for its failures to anticipate the December 2008 snowstorm or to clear the streets once the snow had fallen, the city on Monday ran 22 plows and three "flusher trucks" applying de-icer on snow routes. But snow fell through much of the day, wind blew gusts into the evening, and steep hills turned icy even after being treated with salt.
It took three hours to reopen the viaduct because a bus jacknifed and traffic backed up behind it, thwarting crews from de-icing the highway, said Robert Clarke, maintenance supervisor for SDOT.
Mayor Mike McGinn, experiencing his first winter storm as the city's top official, monitored snow-removal efforts throughout the day. He said crews brined the streets to prepare them and went back over icy roadways with granular salt, but it was so cold the salt may not have been effective.
"The temperature may be cold enough that the salt may not work, but the crews are doing what they are supposed to do," McGinn said. He said city crews planned to work through the night to clear snow routes.
McGinn's predecessor, Greg Nickels, lost his re-election bid a year ago, in part, because of the city's botched handling of the 2008 snowstorms.
Only the State Patrol, which was inundated with calls from accident scenes and stranded motorists, seemed to recognize how bad the roads were.
State Patrol Trooper Julie Startup said that on a scale of 10, the road conditions Monday night were "11 and getting worse."
She said most cars along the I-5 corridor through Seattle were crawling along "about one mile an hour," if moving at all.
"It's just horrible gridlock out there," she said at about 7:30 p.m. "There are places where we've just had to close the roads. This is really a surprise."
Three hours into a commute from downtown to West Seattle, a Metro bus driver called for a bathroom break at a fast-food restaurant along the route.
"The Twilight Zone" is how her commute was described by Phu Bui, 25, who boarded the bus at First and Seneca at about 3:15. At 7:30, she was eating a Sourdough Chicken Club from Jack in the Box. The bus finally reached West Seattle about 9 p.m.
Even Sea-Tac Airport wasn't spared.
One runway was briefly shut down Monday afternoon after a China Airlines 747 cargo plane failed to stop before the end of the runway. The plane never left the pavement, but airport officials said it went about 100 feet beyond the designated landing area before coming to a stop. No injuries were reported.
King County Metro Transit said its buses would be on snow routes again Tuesday. If it is necessary to drive, commuters should plan extra time and be aware that icy conditions are likely. Information on bus routes is at www.kingcounty.gov/metro/snow.
Riders are advised to check after 4 a.m. for possible route cancellations.
Many school districts canceled Monday afternoon and evening activities and some had already announced school would be closed Tuesday, including Seattle Public Schools, because of the freezing temperatures and icy conditions. Information on school closures and delays can be found at www.schoolreport.org.
If it is necessary to drive, commuters should plan extra time and be aware icy conditions will be likely.
Times staff writers Jack Broom, Danny O'Neil, Emily Heffter and Mike Carter contributed to this story. Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305; Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or email@example.com
Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom describes some of the factors that may have led to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon on Thursday, May 23.