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Originally published Wednesday, February 23, 2011 at 9:27 PM

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Icy, chilly challenge falls on commuters

Seattle commuters may have narrowly escaped icy driving conditions Wednesday evening, but they may not be so lucky when they head back to...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Information

Seattle's snow response, road-condition updates: http://Seattle.gov/transportation

Seattle traffic: http://web5.seattle.gov/travelers

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Seattle commuters may have narrowly escaped icy driving conditions Wednesday evening, but they may not be so lucky when they head back to work Thursday.

National Weather Service meteorologist Kirby Cook warned that freezing temperatures and overnight snowfall of 1 to 3 inches would lead to icy pavement throughout the Puget Sound area Thursday morning. He urged drivers to be careful if they decide to brave the roads.

Drivers in some areas were already in trouble Wednesday night. A 30-mile stretch of Interstate 5 between Arlington and Alger was almost impassable after two semi trucks lost traction on the northbound lanes near Mount Vernon at about 9 p.m. The trucks were blocking lanes at the Skagit River Bridge, and several other spun-out and stalled vehicles also were contributing to the mess. Snow plows couldn't get through to clear the road, Washington State Patrol Trooper Keith Leary said.

In Renton, a King County Metro Transit bus slid sideways at Northeast Park Drive near Interstate 405 at about 9 p.m. Wednesday, blocking part of the roadway for half an hour before the bus was up and running again.

A driver on I-5 near Southcenter reported that motorists were carving their own lanes through the snow after lane markings disappeared, making for a scary trip home.

There were no reports of snow sticking in Seattle late Wednesday night, but "even if it isn't snowing, the morning commute will be a challenge," Cook said, given that temperatures were expected to drop well below freezing overnight and most Seattle-area roads were still wet from earlier showers.

Most of the city's major roads have been pre-treated with salt brine, the Seattle Department of Transportation said, and 30 SDOT trucks with plows are to be standing at the ready Thursday morning at strategic points throughout the city. Crews are working around the clock in 12-hour shifts to monitor conditions, SDOT said.

The Washington state Department of Transportation also said major highways have been treated to prevent slippery driving overnight and Thursday morning, and smaller plows were ready to maneuver through traffic to clear any snow-heavy highways.

Both agencies said they were more prepared for this snow event than for November's storm, when Interstate 5 traffic was at a standstill among spun-out cars and jackknifed buses, and Seattle streets were strewn with abandoned and stalled vehicles.

Snowflakes started to fall in Seattle proper Wednesday evening, but only after most workers had gone home. After the evening commute, the roads were still snow-free between Shoreline and SeaTac, and colder air was just beginning to move through the area. Cook said 1 to 3 inches of slushy snow was expected to fall, and stick, in and around the city overnight. At higher elevations, such as the Cascade foothills in East King County, up to 5 inches of snow could fall. In the entire Puget Sound area, snow could continue falling into Thursday afternoon, he said.

In other areas, including East King County and Skagit County, a thick blanket of snow covered the ground before nightfall Wednesday and complicated the commute.

In Snohomish County, parts of which saw 4 to 6 inches of snow Wednesday, there were nine snow-related highway accidents before 3 p.m. Wednesday, Trooper Leary said, and there were reports of several more after the snow started falling farther south in the county at about 5 p.m. Leary said pre-treated roads and cautious drivers made for a much less harrowing experience Wednesday than on Nov. 22, when the State Patrol reported nearly 100 collisions in Snohomish County.

Trooper Julie Startup, who patrols in King County, said much of Interstate 90 and Highway 18 were hit hard by snow and saw multiple spinouts Wednesday. There were a few evening-commute collisions on the Highway 520 bridge, but they were cleared quickly. In Pierce and Thurston counties, there had been no snow-related accidents as of 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Two King County Metro Transit bus routes along Juanita Drive in Kenmore switched to snow routing at about 7 p.m. Wednesday. Metro Transit advised its riders to sign up for alerts at metro.kingcounty.gov/signup and get to know snow routes in their area, since snow was expected to affect most of the area on Thursday.

School districts in East King County and North Snohomish County canceled classes Wednesday because of snow, and many districts in Kitsap and Pierce counties canceled after-school activities in anticipation of evening snowfall. On Wednesday evening, some schools in Skagit and Kitsap counties had already announced that they would be closed Thursday. Puget Sound-area residents can check www.schoolreport.org for information about school closures. A number of severe-weather shelters opened Wednesday night in King and Snohomish counties and were to reopen Thursday night.

Jill Kimball: 206-464-2108 or jkimball@seattletimes.com

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