Awful commute a reminder that bridge is a vital link

EVERETT — Eighty-five years old now, the venerable workhorse carries thousands of commuters on its steel and concrete back each day over a wide stretch of the Snohomish River.

When it was sidelined Monday for emergency repairs, people were able to see how vital the two-lane northbound Highway 529 bridge is to the evening commute.

Side streets jammed up with commuters hoping to zigzag through downtown Everett in a vain search for a magical passageway. Drivers fumed. Dinners grew cold.

The bridge reopened shortly after noon Tuesday.

“It’s a hard-working, blue-collar bridge,” state Department of Transportation spokesman Bart Treece said. “It’s an old bridge, and we have to take good care of it.”

Taking good care of it would not include driving drunk, speeding and crashing an SUV into the bridge’s support beams. That’s what the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office alleges an Everett woman, 37, did early Saturday morning.

The woman was arrested for investigation of drunken driving, attempting to elude police, reckless driving and driving with a suspended license. She has not been jailed pending charges.

That’s not unusual in many suspected drunken driving crashes that can include protracted investigations and lab results, officials said. Authorities must weigh the time it will take to finish an investigation with the constitutional clock that guarantees the right to a speedy trial, sheriff’s office spokeswoman Shari Ireton said.

The allegations the woman likely will face are spelled out in a deputy’s report already in the hands of county prosecutors.

The document shows the woman was pulled over on Pacific Avenue and Broadway around 12:30 a.m. after a deputy clocked her driving 68 mph in a 35 mph zone.

The deputy said the driver didn’t react to his emergency lights or siren.

She did, however, stop at the red light.

The deputy had to bang on her window to get her attention.

He noticed a strong odor of alcohol on her breath.

She told him she didn’t have insurance because she didn’t have a license.

She also acknowledged she was intoxicated, court papers said.

“Well, I’m not going to lie to you, I’m drunk…duh?” she allegedly told him.

“She had a snarky attitude as if it were all just a joke,” the deputy wrote.

When the deputy went to consult a Washington State Patrol trooper, the woman drove off.

He followed.

The chase went north on Broadway. On a hill past Hewitt Avenue, the SUV went airborne. The vehicle later blew through a red light, weaved into oncoming lanes of traffic and reached 97 mph, court papers said.

“It was clear that she was going to continue to drive in a horrifyingly reckless manner regardless of being chased or not,” the deputy wrote.

He added: “She absolutely had to be stopped, the risk to the public was too great to discontinue. The pursuit traveled a distance of about 2.6 miles in about two minutes.”

That two-minute drive resulted in thousands of others stuck in commuting hell Monday.

The state estimates that repairs alone cost $50,000. Transportation officials plan to pursue reimbursement from the vehicle’s owner, Treece said.

State road crews worked around the clock in wet and windy weather.

Among other things, they had to replace two roughly 30-foot structural beams — one vertical, the other diagonal.

Each beam had to be designed and specially built. The vertical beam was made up of four pieces. One part alone weighed up to 1,000 pounds.

With design, fabrication and installation, workers spent about 500 man-hours over three days making the repairs.

The work isn’t done. Drivers will see some daytime, single-lane closures while crews finish with barriers and curbs. The work should not create significant traffic again, Treece said.

Kaprice Walker of Arlington was one of the frustrated drivers on Monday.

She left her job at the Everett Clinic shortly before 5 p.m. She reached I-5 off Everett Avenue at 8:20 p.m.

Like many drivers, she wondered about alternate routes and why she wasn’t seeing police providing traffic control.

“I know they were in a tough spot,” she said.

A lot of folks got off I-5 in south Everett and took city streets northbound to get around the freeway backups, Everett police officer Aaron Snell said. That didn’t work, because all those drivers then had to get back on I-5 once they got downtown.

The police department didn’t deploy officers to work traffic control, because traffic control isn’t effective in that kind of gridlock, he said.

Traffic control works best to direct drivers around an obstacle and onto a clearer route. In Everett Monday night, there was no such thing.

“It was like one constant accident so there was nowhere for them to get around and get back on the freeway to keep moving,” he said.

There were a couple of minor collisions, but that’s typical for the evening commute in the city, he said.

Highway 529 typically absorbs nearly a third of the northbound traffic through Everett, city spokeswoman Kate Reardon said.

Even so, there wasn’t much effort by the city to encourage drivers to come up with alternate travel plans. The city at 3:57 p.m. sent out a news alert asking media to remind people the closure likely would impact traffic and city bus schedules.

Everett officials on Tuesday were reviewing what happened the night before. Among the ideas being floated at City Hall were more detour signs, more detailed suggestions of alternate routes and getting information out earlier, Reardon said.

Still, with the city’s traffic capacity reduced by a third, it’s not clear anything could have prevented the backups, she said.

Monday’s snarl reminded some people of the Everett traffic debacle of 2001. Then, northbound Highway 529 was closed for construction for weeks that summer. Work was being done on U.S. 2 at the same time. It took people hours to get out of north Everett. At the time, government leaders scrambled to find ways to ease the congestion. They tried extra officers, extra signs.

There were no easy answers then, either.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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