What could have been the worst traffic jam the region has ever seen didn’t materialize Monday as commuters stayed away from northbound Interstate 5 by the thousands.
Weeks of warnings by state and local transportation agencies apparently paid off: Traffic volume was cut in half on northbound I-5 from Spokane Street to Interstate 90, which is under repair.
Now state officials hope commuters won’t backslide.
“We’re still early in the construction phase,” said state Department of Transportation spokeswoman Patty Michaud. “We still have a long way to go.”
Spurred by warnings of gridlock as far south as Tacoma, commuters by the thousands packed commuter trains or drove alternate routes Monday. Michaud reported heavier than usual traffic on Interstate 405 and on Airport Way in Seattle.
Sound Transit said 6,719 people boarded northbound Sounder commuter trains Monday morning, including a fifth train added because of the I-5 construction. That was well above normal. In May, an average of 6,866 people boarded the four regular trains each day – but that included the four return trips in the afternoon.
The agency said Monday’s boardings were a record, though it could not immediately provide the previous record.
Fewer people rode express buses Monday – perhaps a reflection of commuters’ desire to avoid the freeway. Sound Transit estimated that 939 people rode the northbound buses Monday, many fewer than the 1,300 who ride on a typical August day.
Meanwhile, traffic flowed smoothly on I-5, where state officials counted 3,300 vehicles per hour – about half the typical Monday morning commute.
Rich Lee, a DuPont resident who works at the University of Washington in Seattle, was cruising past the South 188th Street exit in SeaTac when he realized the nightmare gridlock probably wasn’t going to happen. He was surprised to be ahead of schedule.
“This is unheard of,” he said as his blue Chevrolet Aveo zipped past the off-ramp at 60 mph. “Just unheard of.”
Lee’s Aveo maintained a steady speed of about 60 mph entering a work zone at Spokane Street. Through the construction area, traffic flowed at about 35-40 mph.
“This is like a Sunday,” he said. “A non-Seahawks Sunday. A non-Mariners Sunday.”
Some were less pleased at Tacoma Dome Station, where the line was 20 deep for Sounder tickets just before the first commuter train left at 5:45 a.m. Some missed the train.
“This is an absolutely insane amount of people,” said Eric Choiniere, an occasional Sounder rider. He said he’d never seen it so busy.
Later trains leaving Tacoma appeared to have fewer passengers. But they filled up quickly at other stops. By the time the third Sounder train loaded in Kent, there was standing room only. One regular Sounder user predicted it would get more crowded throughout the week.
“Mondays are light,” said William Pellegrini of Puyallup.
By afternoon, Sound Transit had added a fifth car to the extra train running southbound to Puyallup.
“By and large, things went smoothly, I think,” said Sound Transit spokeswoman Linda Robson.
Early Monday, Sound Transit needed an extra express bus to accommodate an overflow of passengers on their way to Seattle. But the number of passengers thinned on later runs.
Fewer than 20 people were on bus driver Ronald Shindell-Butler’s 7:05 a.m. route from Tacoma to Seattle. He said most of his regular riders on Route 590 took the Sounder train or stayed home Monday morning, hoping to avoid the anticipated Interstate 5 traffic jam.
“Most of my regulars jumped on the train today,” Shindell-Butler said. “They didn’t want to take a chance. They’ll be creeping back tomorrow.”
“It’s not bad at all,” said passenger Jody Hart of Tacoma. “It’s better than a normal commute. We should have this kind of publicity all the time.”
Transportation officials were pleased that commuters responded to calls to stay off I-5.
“Overall, it looks like folks heeded our warnings, and we appreciate that,” said the Transportation Department’s Michaud.
The department again urged commuters to stay away from I-5, where 19 days of construction will see the highway reduced from five lanes to as few as two during the day and a single lane on some nights.
Though the first day went well, that’s no guarantee today’s commute will be as easy. “We just don’t know what the traffic is going to do,” Michaud said.
EXTRA PARKING AVAILABLE
The main parking facilities at Sound Transit’s Tacoma Dome and Puyallup stations filled to capacity on Monday. Drivers were directed to overflow lots set up for the 19-day construction project. Here’s a list of the extra parking:
Tacoma: 650 spaces in one of the Tacoma Dome lots near the Sounder station and transit station
Puyallup: 780 spaces at the Red Lot of the Puyallup Fairgrounds
Sumner: More than 300 spaces in the Sumner High School parking lot
Kent: Additional spaces at the Park & Ride lot near the Kent Station transit center.
“We continue to encourage people to use transit to get to the stations, whether carpools, bus, vanpools or getting dropped off,” Sound Transit spokeswoman Linda Robson said.
FERRY SERVICE INCREASED
Washington State Ferries is making vessel and schedule changes to respond to the I-5 construction between Spokane Street and I-90.
The 188-car MV Walla Walla has been replaced by the 144-car Kaleetan, which carries fewer vehicles but it holds 500 more passengers than the Walla Walla.
The 6:20 a.m. sailing from Bremerton has passenger space available to accommodate walk-on passengers wishing to avoid the I-5 corridor during construction.
The state is encouraging customers to park their vehicles on either the Bremerton or Seattle side and walk onto the ferry during the I-5 construction to avoid waits and to smooth the commute.
To ease loading, Bremerton commuters can join with friends in setting up three-person temporary carpools. Interested commuters can contact Nicole Patrick at Patricn@wsdot.wa.gov or 206-515-3857 for more information.
On Monday, the ferry system added two passenger-only sailings to the Seattle/Vashon passenger-only schedule to assist during the I-5 construction.
Mornings: In addition to the regular weekday 7 a.m. and 8:15 a.m. sailings from Vashon, there will be an additional weekday 5:50 a.m. sailing from Vashon to Seattle and an additional 6:25 a.m. sailing from Seattle to Vashon.
Afternoons: Besides the scheduled weekday afternoon sailings at 4:45 p.m. and 6:10 p.m. from Seattle to Vashon, the ferry system is adding a 3:35 p.m. sailing to help customers avoid the traffic backups expected from the construction. There will also be an added 4:10 p.m. weekday sailing from Vashon to Seattle besides the already scheduled Vashon 5:25 weekday sailing.