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Originally published December 14, 2010 at 8:09 PM | Page modified December 14, 2010 at 8:24 PM

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Faulty snow response in Seattle prompts changes

The Seattle City Council Transportation Committee took testimony from city, state and Metro officials about the Thanksgiving week snowstorm and heard how agencies plan to change strategies to better respond to future weather emergencies.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Not only did the state Transportation Department not open northbound express lanes during the November snowstorm — adding to widespread gridlock and nightmare evening commutes — it didn't notify Seattle officials of its decision.

Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) Director Peter Hahn said Tuesday he had two words for state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond when he spoke to her the next day: "Tell us."

The Seattle City Council Transportation Committee took testimony from city, state and Metro officials about the Thanksgiving week snowstorm and heard how agencies plan to change strategies to better respond to future weather emergencies.

Rapidly falling temperatures the afternoon of Nov. 22 turned wet streets into sheets of ice and led to hours-long closures of major arterials including the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the Battery Street tunnel and made the West Seattle Bridge and Interstate 5 nearly impassable because of accidents and hazardous conditions.

Among the changes announced Tuesday:

• SDOT crews will switch to a stronger salt, magnesium chloride, which is more effective at lower temperatures than the commonly used sodium chloride.

• The city will install spreaders on more trucks so more can respond with salt or sand.

• More equipment will be positioned at bridges and the viaduct so city crews won't have to fight traffic jams to reach trouble spots.

• Metro plans to transition its fleet to GPS systems over the next year so buses' locations can be monitored at a central location, said Kevin Desmond, general manager for Metro.

• The state Department of Transportation (DOT) plans to install automated systems for switching express-lane directions and opening and closing entrance- and exit-ramp gates. It hopes to have the system working by March 2012, said Dave McCormick, assistant regional manager for the DOT.

McCormick acknowledged after Tuesday's briefing that Seattle officials weren't notified of the state's decision to not open the northbound express lanes although the state protocols direct it to call the city if there is a major change in operations.

He said it would have taken up to three hours to reverse the lanes and that the process would have needed to be repeated for the next morning's commute.

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Meanwhile, state crews were dealing with hundreds of accidents, stalled semis and blocked traffic.

"There was a lot going on," he said.

Seattle completely rewrote its emergency snow plan after the city's botched response to a series of December 2008 storms that paralyzed the city. Investigations into that response showed an inexperienced street operations director using sticky notes and a white board to dispatch snowplows and leaving to road crews decisions about which streets to plow first.

Shortly after he took office in January 2010, Mayor Mike McGinn hired Hahn, who had been Snohomish County's transportation director for 14 years. In October Hahn hired his former assistant, Steve Pratt, to take over SDOT's maintenance operations.

City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, chairman of the transportation committee, said SDOT and Metro are now characterized by "strong, hands-on leaders very committed to improving their performance."

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or lthompson@seattletimes.com

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