Viaduct closure lengthens commutes, increases Seattle traffic
Eleanor Yarkin, Reporter
The Alaskan Way Viaduct (AWV) is currently being replaced by a tunnel which has been under construction since 2013. The change in urban geography will have far-reaching and permanent effects in and around Seattle. The closure of the AWV on Friday, Jan. 11 has lengthened commute times for islanders and commuters alike who have depended on the AWV for years.
Having closed permanently, the AWV is being replaced by the new two-mile State Route 99 (SR 99) tunnel. The closure and subsequent tunnel construction were prompted by earthquake safety measures. Currently, Seattle is undergoing a three-week gap between the closure of the AWV and the SR 99 tunnel opening so that work crews can realign on and off ramps to connect to the tunnel. Traffic disruptions from continued construction are projected to last about six weeks.
After the tunnel opens in early February, the AWV will be dismantled in sections over the course of six months. The debris will then be cleared so the new Alaskan Way surface street can be built. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) predicts that traffic levels will not settle fully until the surface street is opened in 2021, nearly two years from now.
While the worst of the congestion caused by the closure of the AWV will last three weeks, traffic patterns in Seattle will be changed permanently and could result in lengthened commute times for numerous island residents traveling north into or past downtown Seattle.
“It’s important to remember that this is ultimately a safety project, not a congestion-relief project,” the WSDOT blog said.
According to WSDOT, this construction will be “the longest major highway closure to ever hit the Puget Sound region.” 12 bus routes, including the C line — which connects directly to the Fauntleroy ferry terminal — have been rerouted. An additional King County Water Taxi route connecting Fauntleroy and downtown has also been added to help ease commuter traffic.
Some residents have shared concerns about how a toll fee, which will be imposed on the tunnel this May, will impact long term traffic.
“[The toll fee] is going to force more people, who cannot afford the tolling, to use I-5 for local travel,” local resident Allison North said. “This will increase travel times through the city and will continue to increase the disparity between … those that can afford the toll on a regular basis, or even an occasional basis, and the rest of the population.”
The tunnel will also shift traffic as, in contrast with the AWV, it does not connect with Western Avenue, Seneca Streett, and Columbia Street. Instead, the tunnel will exit at SoDo and South Lake Union. The new Alaskan Way surface street will allow the previously accessible central downtown exits to be used again.
During the closure of the AWV, WSDOT has advised people to bike, walk, carpool, and use public transportation when getting to and from work. They have also recommended that people work from home and telecommute as much as possible. They further suggest planning new personal commuting routes when the tunnel opens.
Additionally, WSDOT has put a traffic control plan in place which includes parking restrictions, manual traffic control, and extended hours of Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and the Transportation Operations Center, all in hopes of reducing Seattle traffic to manageable levels.
“We’re coordinating with the Seattle Police Department to deploy uniformed police officers at key transit intersections – prioritizing transit and helping drivers get through,” the SDOT blog said.
In a survey studying the impact of the AWV closure on island residents, many community members stated that they would reduce or eliminate trips to Seattle in the upcoming weeks, especially those that required driving. Others mentioned that Seattle would not be the same without the AWV.
“The [AWV] has been a fixture of Seattle for 65 years, and as such, it is really unfortunate to see it go,” North said.
However, some look forward to the changes in construction and safety that the removal of the AWV will bring.
“A redeveloped waterfront will probably be even more enjoyable,” island resident Vicky de Monterey Richoux said. “It’s good for public health that we lose the seismic risk of continued use of the viaduct.”
The exact change in traffic that will take place in the upcoming years is hard to predict. Trips to Seattle can be planned ahead by checking the WSDOT, SDOT, Sound Transit, and King County Metro websites for information and traffic updates.