Here’s why transit won’t help you much on those I-5 apocalypse weekends

Sound Transit has no plans to add more weekend Sounder trains between Pierce County and Seattle despite traffic-clogging road construction this summer.
Sound Transit has no plans to add more weekend Sounder trains between Pierce County and Seattle despite traffic-clogging road construction this summer. Staff file/2017

When the state Department of Transportation alerted South Sound drivers this month that northbound Interstate 5 travel would be snarled by lane closures for five straight weekends, the agency offered some advice.

“During the lane reductions, drivers can help ease congestion by using bus or light rail service,” the agency wrote in its official advisory

The problem for Pierce County drivers: That advice is hard to follow.

While the congestion materialized last weekend, with backups of up to five miles, alternatives were scarce or difficult to access.

The nearest light-rail connection is at the Angle Lake station in SeaTac, and drivers from points south would have needed to slog through construction-related backups to get there. Light rail isn’t expected to reach Tacoma for another 13 years.

In addition, Pierce Transit did not add express buses for Tacoma-to-Seattle service, nor did Sound Transit add any weekend Sounder trains.

The buses that did run were caught up in the same traffic that people who drove their own cars experienced.

Pierce Transit reported that delays affected up to four-fifths of last weekend’s trips on some routes. Agency spokeswoman Rebecca Japhet could not say how many people rode the weekend buses.

Sunday was a bit better than Saturday, with delays of about 30 minutes instead of the 45-to-60-minute delays Saturday bus riders experienced. Google Maps estimated an afternoon drive Saturday from downtown Tacoma to Seattle required up to 90 minutes.

That meant drivers with unavoidable trips into King County had little recourse besides sweating out the delays while burning gas in stop-and-start tie-ups, or cobbling together routes along smaller highways — and some of those got jammed up, too.

It isn’t expected to get better.

Similar scenarios will confront northbound drivers again and again, and again and again, on weekends from now until mid-July.

Barring inclement weather, the closures will cut sections of I-5 northbound down to two lanes from 8 p.m. Friday to 5 a.m. Monday every weekend until July 17, and additional alternatives to driving won’t materialize.

The Transportation Department deferred to Sound Transit when asked why scheduled road construction — especially of the Friday-to-Monday lane closure variety, as is underway — isn’t accompanied by transit expansion. WSDOT spokesman Tom Pearce could not say whether the agencies had ever discussed it.

Sound Transit spokeswoman Kimberly Reason said adding Sounder commuter-train runs during construction weekends is too complex a proposition to work out. The agency has to negotiate its Sounder schedule with BNSF Railway, which owns the tracks.

“Even if we had the financial resources to run such service, we wouldn’t be able to project where or at what times ridership would reach the critical mass needed to justify rolling out an additional weekend train (since there wouldn’t be a time-specific event around which we’d schedule a train),” Reason wrote in an email.

Sounder trains sometimes run weekend service from Lakewood and Tacoma for Seattle Seahawks, Mariners and (yes) Sounders home games, but those additional trains are keyed to game times and subsidized by the sports organizations promoting the games, Reason said.

Because of Mariners and Sounders games, there will be afternoon trains available on Sunday (June 25), July 8 and July 9.

Any of them would get a Seattle-bound Tacoman north of the expected I-5 logjam, but sports fans fill most game-day trains, Reason said.

Beyond that, South Sound people trying to get past the traffic shouldn’t expect any added transit service.

“Adding more buses to an already congested corridor often isn’t an effective strategy since even the HOV lanes in which buses travel become clogged as well,” Reason wrote.

Pearce, the Transportation Department spokesman, said his agency still wants people to take the bus instead of driving individual cars, if possible.

“The big thing is reducing the number of cars going through the work zone,” he said.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally