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Originally published October 27, 2011 at 4:34 PM | Page modified October 28, 2011 at 6:57 AM

Viadoom traffic finally living up to the hype

The much-feared Viadoom congestion finally arrived in full force Thursday, causing slowdowns as far off as Bothell.

Seattle Times transportation reporter

Viaduct closed until Saturday, Oct. 29

THE ALASKAN WAY VIADUCT will close as the state begins replacing the aging structure. Expect major delays on Highway 99, Interstate 5, the West Seattle Bridge and neighborhood streets as drivers are forced to detour. Give yourself extra time for travel.

Project schedule: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21, to midday Saturday, October 29. The viaduct was expected to reopen at 5 a.m. Monday, Oct. 31, but demolition moved faster than planned.

Northbound lanes: Highway 99 from the West Seattle Bridge to South Royal Brougham Way, near the stadiums, will be closed. The northbound onramp near First Avenue South, and northbound lanes of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, are now open 24 hours a day, from Royal Brougham Way to South Lake Union.

Southbound lanes: The portion from the Battery Street Tunnel to the West Seattle Bridge will be closed.

More resources

Viaduct closure guide: Interactive and printable maps for driving, bicycling and taking mass transit

The Today File: The latest news on the viaduct closure

Chat rewind: Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom answers reader questions

Have a question? Ask reporter Mike Lindblom and read his answers to commuter questions

Related stories: How to get around while the viaduct's closed, thousands say goodbye to viaduct, Alaskan Way Viaduct to reopen midday Saturday

More links: Metro website, WSDOT website, WSDOT viaduct camera, live traffic cameras

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The much-feared Viadoom congestion finally arrived in full force Thursday, causing slowdowns as far off as Bothell.

Traffic entering Seattle on I-5 was stop-and-go from Shoreline to downtown, starting as early as 3 p.m. and continuing past 6 p.m. A seven-mile trip from Northgate to the convention center took 40 minutes, according to the INRIX traffic-data firm.

As regional drivers tried to miss Seattle, congestion built on I-405 southbound in the Canyon Park area of Bothell, where speeds were 23 mph, or half the usual pace.

"I think it's living up to the hype," said Jim Bak of Kirkland-based INRIX.

Drivers had a hard time leaving South Lake Union in late afternoon, as actual gridlock — cars stuck at intersections blocking the cross-traffic during a green light — spread from Mercer Street to Denny Way.

Morgan Balogh, regional traffic engineer for the state Department of Transportation, said several minor crashes and stalls happened in early afternoon, on I-5 in Seattle and on I-405 in Bellevue, and the freeways never recovered. Meanwhile, the south half of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which normally carries 90,000 people a day through Sodo, is closed this week for demolition and construction of a detour route.

The primary surface corridor from Sodo to the lower West Seattle swing bridge — which carries King County Metro buses — was jampacked Thursday evening.

Some tried to save time by using the water taxi to West Seattle, but the 5:15 and 5:45 p.m. boats filled and left behind 30 to 36 people each, said seattletimes.com news producer Lauren Rabaino, who waited a half-hour.

Car and bus commuters braced for a repeat of Wednesday, when trains reportedly blocked the route three times at South Hanford Street. A KOMO traffic reporter tweeted there were train crossings shortly after 5 p.m. Thursday. Also, the low bridge swung open just after 6 p.m.

Although there were some train crossings Thursday evening, BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said, there were no major delays.

The BNSF Railway assembles trains of more than a mile long in the area to carry containers to the Midwest or other destinations. Much of this work is done on track north of the Seattle International Gateway (SIG) yard, but the state DOT was doing live demolition Thursday right over that track, said state spokesman Travis Phelps. Losing the north track put pressure on BNSF to work in Sodo.

"The railway is hard to predict," said Brian Kemper, interim traffic engineer for the city of Seattle. "There was reasonable cooperation on Monday and Tuesday, but Wednesday afternoon was poor. They had back-and-forth blocking the city streets."

Melonas replied: "BNSF is making it a priority to get the bulk of the switching done, again, during the nonpeak vehicular hours, as much as realistic. As we've been focusing, talking with the crews, evaluating the situation each day."

West Seattle Blog reported that a semi was stalled on the low swing bridge just before 5 p.m.

Metro buses went so far as to use Colorado Avenue South, a pitted gravel and dirt road that goes behind Home Depot and Starbucks Center, to jump a car queue Wednesday night. Buses also have raced to the First Avenue South Bridge, for instance after 6 p.m. when train movements or swing-bridge openings are under way.

At least until Thursday, driving still seemed to be down about 20 percent regionally, to avert widespread gridlock, Bak said.

He thinks the latest mess will discourage people from driving on Friday, and traffic will be better.

In related news, the northbound lanes of the old viaduct are now permanently open from the Royal Brougham Way ramp all the way to South Lake Union. The route expands from two lanes to four, once cars reach the top deck — and most drivers seemed to be hitting the gas pedal then, rather than adhering to the new, lowered 40 mph speed limit.

Thursday night, workers began to install some 3,000 feet of concrete divider onto the new Highway 99 southbound bridge, which will be used as a two-way, four-lane detour until a new stadium interchange and tunnel are ready by 2016.

Phelps said the highway is definitely on schedule to reopen by 5 a.m. Monday. The detour road at surface near the stadiums is paved already, raising hopes for a possible early full reopening before the Seahawks game Sunday afternoon. However, Phelps said it also is possible that workers take up the entire allotted time and do additional work — if a blitz would save time on the overall Sodo project.

Bak warns of a "new normal," in which Seattle commuters will face long-term slow traffic after the Viadoom work. Ongoing construction, along with coming tolls on Highway 520, and future economic recovery, ought to boost traffic. Both the tunnel, and greater transit options, will be needed, he said.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

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