Commuter traffic delays ahead

May 5, 2009

By Warren Kagarise

Interstate 90 lane closures begin

Transportation officials advised commuters to pack their patience during a busy construction season that includes two shutdowns on the Interstate 90 floating bridge.Express lanes on the bridge closed May 4 — and the shutdown brought headaches for Eastside commuters. Commute times from Issaquah to Seattle ballooned during the first day of the shutdown. On a typical day, the commute takes about 30 minutes.

At 7:40 a.m., driving time stretched to 39 minutes. Drivers headed west from Issaquah at 8:13 a.m. endured a 51-minute trip to Seattle. The commute time grew to 57 minutes for commuters making the drive at 8:30 a.m., according to the state Department of Transportation.

The lanes will be closed until May 23 while crews install a pair of new joints weighing 40 tons each. Existing joints began to crack and deteriorate soon after the bridge opened in 1989. Although workers have conducted patchwork repairs for years, state Department of Transportation officials said the joints must be replaced before they weaken and break. The project will be funded with  $8.3 million in federal bridge funds, which are supported by gas tax revenue.

Another shutdown is set for July, when the state shuts down the westbound I-90 bridge to replace another set of aging joints.

Russ East, assistant regional administrator for the DOT, encouraged commuters to consider alternatives, such as joining a vanpool or biking to work. A bike and pedestrian lane on the westbound span will remain open during the July shutdown.

“Pack your patience,” he said. “This is going to be a tough time in July.”

Vehicles will be limited to two express lanes during the July 5-28 closure. Crews will replace the existing cracked expansion joints with a new pair weighing 65 tons each.

East said the May shutdown would cause less noticeable traffic snarls for westbound commuters.

“It’s like when the Mariners were winning and you were trying to get into town for the evening,” he said.

East said congestion would worsen when the state shuts down the westbound span in July. Commuters can expect delays up to 40 minutes long on stretches of I-90 east of Mercer Island, according to DOT estimates.

East said bridge traffic could back up as far east as Interstate 405.

“There’s no question that traffic is going to be bad,” East said. He discussed the project and its impact on Issaquah commuters at a Committee-of-the-Whole Council meeting April 28.

Councilman Fred Butler asked if King County Metro or Sound Transit buses would be an alternative for commuters. East said the agencies would not allocate additional buses to the routes during the shutdowns.

“Buses will be impacted just like everybody else,” East said.

Butler said he hoped DOT officials would apply lessons from the May shutdown to the July closure. East said the agency had the “luxury of a month” between shutdowns to study possible traffic remedies.

An estimated 71,000 vehicles cross the bridge every day. An additional 6,200 vehicle use the eastbound express lanes each afternoon.

“There’s no silver bullet solution,” East said. “It is going to be congested.”

Reach Reporter Warren Kagarise at 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment on this story at www.issaquahpress.com.

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