Viaduct Closure to Squeeze Streets, Slow Bus Traffic Across Seattle

by Carolyn Bick

The Seattle Squeeze is imminent and leaves some, like Transit Rider’s Union representative Katie Wilson, concerned over the fate of South Seattle commuters who work downtown looking for alternate modes of transportation to work.

The Seattle Squeeze is the ominous nickname given to a years-long transportation project that will come to a head on Jan. 11 with the permanent closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct in preparation for the opening of a new Highway 99 underground tunnel running through downtown. Even when the new tunnel re-opens, Seattle will remain squeezed: some commuters used downtown exists off the Viaduct that will not be available in the tunnel, which cuts directly through downtown.

Wilson worries what the squeeze means for the South End, in terms of people finding alternate routes. She said some neighborhoods in North Seattle, such as Fremont, have safer bike lanes.

“One consideration for Southeast Seattle and Rainier Valley — and this goes back to Rainier Avenue, because that’s a really dangerous corridor for biking and walking,” Wilson said. “And so, people are looking for alternatives to sitting stuck in traffic, something like bicycling to work may be more difficult or not be an option, as opposed to someone who lives in Fremont.”

The City of Seattle estimates it will take construction crews about three weeks to realign the highway into the new State Route 99 Tunnel, but it could take longer, depending on weather conditions. The closure is part of a larger project to create Alaskan Way, projected to open in 2021.

The Alaskan Way Viaduct first opened for traffic in 1953. Earthquakes and time took their toll on the highway, prompting city leaders to debate how to replace it; the tunnel won out over other options, which included repairing the viaduct or replacing it with a surface-level roadway.

After the upcoming closure, the 90,000 or so vehicles that normally use the tunnel will have to move onto surface streets through and around downtown Seattle. The city anticipates severe congestion, as commuters find new ways to get to work, be it through carpooling, biking, or using public transportation.

Public transportation that leads to and through downtown Seattle will also be affected. During the press conference, King County Metro’s Managing Director of Service Development Bill Bryant said 12 southbound bus routes will see the most obvious effects for up to one year after the tunnel closes. These bus routes include the 21x, 37, 55, 56, 57, 113, 120, 121, 122, 123, 125, and the C Line, which collectively serve about 30,000 riders per day from southwest King County, Burien, Des Moines, and West Seattle.

Following the three-week closure, Bryant said commuters should plan for the closure of the downtown Seattle transit tunnel to buses on March 23. Buses 101, 102, and 150, serving South King County commuters, will be shifted to surface streets along with the 41, 75, 255 and 550 routes.

Wilson said the brunt of these scheduled changes to bus routes will likely hit low-wage workers the hardest, because they are less likely to be able to telecommute or have a flexible schedule. Most low-wage workers are women and people of color.

Due to the increased congestion, Metro will also start off-board fare collection on Third Avenue, meaning riders will be able to pay before they step onto the bus. Until stationary fare collection machines are installed at each of the Third Avenue stops, he said, Metro staffers will collect fares by hand.

This could lead to people who normally rely on the bus drivers to let them on without paying — specifically, low-wage workers, no-wage riders, or people experiencing homelessness — to accumulate fines, Wilson said. If unpaid, these fines could lead to misdemeanor charges on one’s record. Though the TRU is working with Metro to roll out a less punitive fare collection system in 2020, Wilson said, for some, the new system may not come soon enough to avoid these penalties.

At the press conference, Director of Downtown Mobility Heather Marx encouraged commuters to carpool and find alternate modes of transportation, as single-occupant cars will only increase congestion. She also said the city is employing alternate work schedules for its own employees, and working with major employers to work out telecommute options. If all of that fails, she said, the city has additional measures and modifications it plans to deploy, in order to reduce traffic and congestion, including creating more public transit-only lanes and streets, and modifying signal timing on the I-5 ramp.

She emphasized that people should plan for the closure.

“What we’ve seen from other closures is, sometimes, the first two days are fine, because you know everybody is a little bit nervous, and they do a little bit extra to do something different,” she said. “Then people get comfortable, and sort of fall back into their old ways, and then traffic rears its ugly head.”

Marx also said there are a number of transportation resources for commuters and employers. These include King County Metro Travel Options, the Seattle Traffic website, an employer-specific commute website, and the Washington State Department of Transportation’s dedicated viaduct closure page.

Featured Image: “Alaskan Way Viaduct” by afagen is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.