‘Seattle Squeeze’: City gears up for major highway closure

TheAlaskan Way Viaduct will be replaced by a four-lane tunnel

  • Jan. 9, 2019 2:30 p.m.

Amber light spills out of the tunnel that will shortly become the new Highway 99, as traffic moves along on either side of it on the current Hwy. 99, ahead of an upcoming closure of the older roadway in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

A major thoroughfare for commuters along downtown Seattle’s waterfront is set to shut down for good Friday, ushering in what officials say will be one of the most painful traffic periods in the history of the booming city.

The aging, double-decker, 3.5-kilometre Alaskan Way Viaduct, which carries about 90,000 vehicles each day, will be replaced by a four-lane tunnel. Officials say tearing down the viaduct, damaged in a 2001 earthquake, will allow Seattle to reimagine its waterfront with new parks, paths and other amenities.

READ MORE: Vancouver Canucks looking to build rivalry with new Seattle hockey team

But the new tunnel won’t open until about three weeks after the viaduct closes as workers realign the highway into it. A mélange of other construction projects will further constrain traffic in the hilly city surrounded by water, already known for its population growth and traffic woes.

Washington’s transportation agency on its website has a clock counting down to the viaduct closure , which it says will be the longest major highway closure the Puget Sound region has ever seen.

The period between the viaduct’s closure, scheduled for 10 p.m. Friday, and the state Route 99 tunnel opening is already being dubbed the “Seattle Squeeze.”

“It is dramatic,” said Heather Marx, director of Downtown Mobility for the Seattle Department of Transportation. “Everyone travelling in the region will be impacted,” she said, referring to people going to and through the Seattle metropolitan area.

City, King County and state officials have been doing outreach and working to ensure things run as smoothly as possible, like authorities did ahead of Los Angeles’ “Carmageddon” freeway shutdown in 2011. Many feared that dayslong bridge project on one of the region’s most critical freeways would lead to epic traffic jams, but it cruised to a finish ahead of schedule with no significant problems.

During the “Seattle Squeeze,” school bus drivers will start their days earlier, and officials are advising commuters to work from home or adjust their work hours if they can. Those who can’t are being asked to walk, bike, join a carpool or use transit including buses, light rail or water taxis — all to avoid driving solo into downtown during peak commute times.

Tad Donaghe, of West Seattle, usually travels by bus to his downtown job at Nordstrom but has worked out an alternate route involving light rail and water taxi to avoid the anticipated crush of drivers switching to buses during the closure.

“I tried out my #Viadoom commute tonight,” he tweeted Monday, using a popular hashtag related to the closure.

The growth of tech giant Amazon and a population boom has spawned an abundance of construction in the Seattle area in recent years with new housing, light rail expansion and infrastructure development already straining commuters’ patience. Once the tunnel opens, removing the viaduct will take months, which will be followed by the creation of the new downtown waterfront area. Large private projects also in the city’s core include the renovation of a sports arena that will host professional hockey and an addition to the Washington State Convention Center.

Lisa Baumann, The Associated Press

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A sign overhead advises of an upcoming closure of the the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

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