Seattle Squeeze: KNKX special coverage of the Alaskan Way Viaduct closure
The Alaskan Way Viaduct closes forever Friday, marking the beginning of a three-week disruption that’s been dubbed the Seattle Squeeze — a period of heavy congestion around the region, especially in and out of the Emerald City. After the new tunnel opens in February, demolition of the waterfront structure will begin, eliminating what’s been known for decades as “the working man’s view.”
Officials have been encouraging people to take more transit, shift their work hours — or work from home if they can — to keep cars off congested roads until the new tunnel opens.
Listen to KNKX throughout the Seattle Squeeze for special coverage and regular traffic updates. Stream online, "play KNKX" on your smart speaker or tune into 88.5 FM. This post is developing, and will be updated as stories roll in, building upon past coverage. Browse previously reported stories and resources from transit agencies below.
Share your commuting and other viaduct-closure experiences with us on social media using the hashtag #SeattleSqueeze, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
UPDATE, Feb. 1: The new tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct is opening on schedule, according to an email from a WSDOT spokeswoman.
“In the early hours of Monday, Feb. 4, (crews will) begin opening the tunnel to traffic, a process that will occur ramp by ramp over the course of several hours," spokeswoman Laura Newborn said. "The tunnel will be fully open by the time you hit the road for your morning commute.”
Newborn says people who haven’t already should familiarize themselves with the new route. Videos from the agency show commuters how to get around after the tunnel opens.
“In addition to providing a direct route from the stadiums to the Space Needle, the tunnel portals have new entrances and exits that will take some getting used to. We’re asking everyone to be safe and stay alert to their surroundings as travelers adjust to new travel patterns.”
Although the tunnel debuts Monday, the new northbound off-ramp to Alaskan Way at the south portal won’t open for another two weeks, Newborn noted.
For people curious about future toll rates, which could begin as soon as summer 2019, WSDOT officials say to browse information on the agency's tolling page. Initial use of the tunnel will be free.
UPDATE, Jan. 28: As commuters continue to slog through traffic during the “period of maximum constraint,” we asked a pro for a little advice. Dave Groh has spent decades driving tour buses and taxis in Seattle, much of that time dressed head to toe as Elvis Presley.
KNKX’s Gabriel Spitzer asked The King how to cope with the congestion.
“Allow google maps to take you down roads you’ve never been on before,” Groh said. “I love that system.”
He says that even after 20 years of driving around the city professionally, he continues to find new routes to avoid congested roads.
And if you can’t beat the traffic, chill out.
“If traffic’s not moving, just relax,” he said. “Enjoy some music, listen to NPR. Getting angry and trying to rage your way through traffic is just going to kill people.”
Looking ahead to the grand opening of Seattle’s new tunnel, WSDOT says nearly 100,000 people have signed up for events celebrating the milestone, said WSDOT spokeswoman Laura Newborn.
“Wow,” she said in an email Friday.
Thousands will celebrate bright and early with an 8K fun run at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 2. The route starts in the shadow of the Space Needle, taking runners through the new tunnel, onto the viaduct and through the Battery Street Tunnel.
The event is followed by a ribbon cutting and a series of launch activities.
Sunday, Feb. 3, bikers will come together in a sold-out, 12.5-mile ride through the tunnel and onto both levels of the viaduct. The 12,000 people signed up will shatter a record for the largest bike ride in Washington state.
To learn more about these events, as well as five things to know, check out the WSDOT blog.
UPDATE, Jan. 23: Drivers in the region have another week and a half left of the Seattle Squeeze. Officials are still encouraging commuters to explore alternate routes and modes of transit. They also stress shifting travel to earlier or later if possible, to avoid peak commute hours.
In a project update Wednesday, WSDOT spokeswoman Laura Newborn said traffic volumes started building about 30 minutes earlier than usual. A slew of crashes added to slowdowns.
“As of 9 a.m., the largest delays were out of the north end as well as on northbound I-405 between Renton and Bellevue,” she wrote. “The south end commute looked very similar to what we’ve since the Alaskan Way Viaduct closed.
“Commuters saw heavy traffic on major arterials connecting to I-5 and surface streets heading into downtown (on Seattle streets),” Newborn said.
Construction activities are progressing as planned, she added: “At the tunnel’s north portal, electrical crews continue to get traffic signals ready on the ramps to SR 99. In the tunnel’s south portal, crews are building roadway barriers and have more concrete pours scheduled later this week. Asphalt paving is also planned for later this week, when drier weather is expected.”
The first commute: Public transit proved unremarkable the first day of the Seattle Squeeze, at least on routes taken by two KNKX reporters.
Bellamy Pailthorp checked in at the park-and-ride lot in Kenmore, where she didn't see much crowding and observed plenty of open parking spots. The lot, which has more than 600 spaces, looked as full as it did at the same time last week, she said. "Lots of open seats on buses, which take about 45 minutes to get to downtown from here." Her bus, the Metro 312, arrived in the city at its normal time — not a minute late or early, Pailthorp's bus drive announced during the drive.
Ashley Gross commuted to KNKX from West Seattle by water taxi, and joined Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick on the air live during her journey. She said the ride was smooth. “The 773 shuttle from the Alaska Junction was almost empty,” Gross said.
Gross talked to a fellow passenger, who said he noticed more people on the taxi. She added that bus and light rail commuters she talked to reported normal, smooth routes.
And another woman who talked with Gross, Cindy Petek, says her normal bus from Lynnwood also was totally fine. Listen to the full audio below:
Day Two appeared to be similarly normal. Gross took a different method of transit to see how she fared.
She said it was a "quick zip" across the West Seattle Bridge via bus, and she arrived in downtown Seattle 29 minutes after boarding at Alaska Junction.
Laura Newborn, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, said in an email Tuesday that the morning commute got off to a rough start compared with a smooth one the day before:
“Several incidents slowed traffic during the morning commute, which again started earlier than usual. South end commuters had slower travels than most. Travel times on northbound I-405 and northbound SR 167 were approximately 10 minutes slower than usual.”
She added that many other corridors flowed smoothly — in some cases, such as southbound I-5 between Everett and Seattle, better than normal. Increased congestion on the West Seattle Bridge has more people traveling via water taxi, Newborn noted: ridership was up 269 percent from the same day last year.
Work on the new tunnel, which opens in about three weeks, is proceeding as planned, Newborn said.
Previewing the Seattle Squeeze: Seattle Times reporter Mike Lindblom talked with Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick about what commuters should expect from the squeeze. Even the man covering the closure isn’t immune to traffic concerns; planning started early for Lindblom’s new routes from his home in West Seattle.
He says some measures have been taken to seek relief on the roads: the City of Seattle plans to retime intersections, and King County will put about 20 buses in reserve to make room for transit “newbies,” for example. But growth hasn’t slowed, and longer traffic times — even on transit — are likely unavoidable.
Transit agencies are even encouraging those who are able to bail out of buses on the fringes of the city during the squeeze, and walk the rest of the way to their destinations.
Lindblom says he’s been getting lots of questions everywhere he goes, even at church and the grocery store. Listen to the full conversation.
The last drive: All Things Considered host Ed Ronco drove the viaduct for the last time along with traffic reporter Sprince Arbogast. They talk about the impacts on regional traffic and what they plan to do for their own commutes: "I don't know what I'm going to do," Arbogast says. "I'm going to bring a blood-pressure cuff in my car." Arbogast will have 10 cameras to monitor traffic for KNKX listeners throughout the closure.
HEAR THEIR CONVERSATION
One more headache for teachers: Transportation officials have several recommendations to help commuters survive the three-week period between closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and opening of Seattle's new tunnel. Among them: work from home or flex your schedule. Neither is an option for most teachers. Learn how the closure affects them, and what they’re doing to make it to school on time.
“This is stressful for a lot of people, but especially for educators who have to get between, say, North Seattle and West Seattle,” youth and education reporter Ashley Gross told Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick, in a conversation about the story. “A lot of those folks really depend on the viaduct.”
REPORTER ASHLEY GROSS TALKS TEACHER TROUBLES WITH MORNING EDITION HOST KIRSTEN KENDRICK
Sage Wilson, with the organization Working Washington, said the problem isn't just one teachers are dealing with. She said people who work in food service, retail, warehouses and the gig economy — also will struggle.
Her organization compiled a list of recommendations for employers that Wilson says has been endorsed by council members in Seattle and King County. Among them: provide advance notice for work schedules, set a minimum shift length and don't rely on on-call shifts.
"I think it adds an important piece to the conversation to be acknowledging that there are hundreds of thousands of these workers in the region," Wilson wrote in an email.
As for school buses, Gross reported Friday that teachers for Seattle schools will be given discretion to excuse students when they’re tardy. A spokesman for the school district says some bus drivers will be coming in 30 minutes early as a way to keep buses on track during the closure.
These additional challenges follow school-bus delays, unrelated to the viaduct closure, that started at the beginning of the school year. Listen to full audio below:
The Overcast looks back: The tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle has been a long time coming. Replacement discussions have been underway since the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, and several options were studied before the Legislature approved funds for a deep-bore tunnel in 2009. Voters approved it two years later.
In the nearly two decades that officials and Seattleites have been talking about replacing the viaduct, the city has changed dramatically. But as Seattle Times Traffic Lab reporter David Gutman reports, all the old debates and divisions have seemed to remain. He looked back at the politics of the viaduct with colleagues Jim Brunner and Dan Beekman. They also discussed the "new normal" commuters can expect after the three-week closure.
To hear more about lessons from the past, including what we can learn from a nine-day closure of the viaduct in 2016, listen below and read more here.
Demolition open houses: Last month, WSDOT held open houses to prepare the community for demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, slated to begin next month.
Videos outline commuting changes: WSDOT created detailed videos explaining how commutes will change following the opening of the new tunnel. Watch them now.
Bloodworks Northwest strategizes: The regional blood bank is moving some of its supplies north to make sure resources are available as travel around the region is expected to become more difficult. Larry Shaw, director of community engagement, says Bloodworks also is looking to donors outside Seattle.
“And we're hoping that during this time when it's a challenge for folks in Seattle to step up and give, that folks who live outside the area will go out of their way to make an extra donation to make sure we can supply blood to the hospitals that need it,” Shaw said.
Bloodworks says it will continue operating its donation centers and mobile blood drives. The organization points people to a new app to help them figure out where to donate.
The state Department of Transportation has installed new cameras to monitor progress over the next several weeks; the camera shots refresh every five minutes.
The state Route 99 tunnel on-ramp was unearthed Jan. 4-7; a timelapse video shows the work being completed.
WSDOT is providing planning resources for the unprecedented highway closure, which is anticipated to significantly impact traffic around Seattle and commuting around the region.
On Wednesday, the agency held a news conference at South Dearborn Street, underneath a portion of the viaduct that will be removed hours after the structure closes. WSDOT also provided a rendering of what South Dearborn will look like after work is completed.
STAY IN THE KNOW
Here is a list of resources for commuters and residents who will be affected by the weekslong closure, as well as the indefinite changes to the commute:
"Forget glaring at the bumper of the car ahead of you, or anxiously craning your neck to peer around it."— King County Metro 🚏 🚌🚎⛴🚐 (@kcmetrobus) January 11, 2019
Solid tips for your friends & neighbors who haven't yet discovered the freedom of riding the bus, via @seattletimes reporter @davidlgutman
🚧#Realign99 #SeattleSqueeze 🚧 https://t.co/3wI7AZq11I
Here is WSDOT's project page for #Realign99.
This page offers daily updates on traffic and construction progress.
UPDATE, Jan. 22: WSDOT released a video of crews unearthing the northbound and southbound tunnel ramps near the stadiums.
This post is developing. Check back for regular updates.