From here to there: An eternity

State traffic officials really didn’t believe it could get this bad

By Jim Haley and Cathy Logg

Herald Writers

EVERETT — Even the Roto-Rooter man couldn’t have solved the traffic clog that has plagued Everett this week. But traffic engineers promise things will get better.

City and state agencies were scrambling Tuesday to find a way to ease what has become an afternoon commuting mess caused by the shutdown of northbound Highway 529 for bridge repairs. Officials also hope commuters adjust their work schedules or routes to help ease the traffic crunch.

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Drivers in traffic jam also had stop-and-go cell phone service

It’s a crying shame what drivers have to endure

Otherwise, drivers can expect to keep having nightmare commutes, as Judy Helms did Tuesday afternoon when it took her 3 1/2hours to make the 15-minute trip from her job at the Kimberly-Clark plant in Everett to her home in Marysville.

"I dread going home again," Helms said.

On Tuesday, Washington State Patrol troopers kept the peace at several intersections along Everett Avenue by trying to maximize use of the I-5 onramp in east Everett. The city requested a sign discouraging motorists from leaving I-5 and cutting through Everett — something many do in an attempt to avoid traffic slowdowns near the U.S. 2 interchange.

City streets were strained as the 529 bridge closure rerouted 4,000 cars an hour. City traffic engineer Wayne Wentz said he expected an extra 2,000 cars an hour to use the Everett Avenue onramp, but not the surge that occurred.

"So we lost 30 to 40 percent of our capacity" to move northbound commuters out of the city, he said. "I’ve never seen anything this bad in Everett."

Motorists jockeyed for position to get onto the freeway, spilling into numerous side streets and quickly filling them. Hewitt Avenue was much slower than usual between Broadway and the U.S. 2 trestle. Lowell-Larimer Road through the Snohomish Valley was backed up for miles from Seattle Hill Road to the south Everett community of Lowell.

It was the surge of traffic taking the northbound Broadway exit near 41st Street that spelled doom for the city’s transportation network, said Wayne Wentz, city traffic engineer.

Many of those motorists tried to get to the 529 route over the Snohomish River Delta and were forced to take a detour, doubling back into the city over Broadway, E. Marine View Drive, Walnut Street or E. Grand Avenue. By then, many lanes and even many side streets were a virtual parking lot.

The gridlock became so bad that even state Department of Transportation Secretary Douglas MacDonald tried to ease concerns. He agreed that vehicles trying to pass through the 529 detour were a big part of the problem.

"We obviously try in a situation like this to let people know in advance," he said. "We can always try to do more. In this particular situation, it seems to be people don’t quite believe it’s real and really did think they could get through, while the bridge actually is closed. We’re very sorry about that. We need to redouble our efforts. Now that we realize how bad it is, we’ve obviously got more work to do."

State and city traffic engineers huddled with Everett Mayor Ed Hansen early Tuesday afternoon, attempting to find solutions to the mess. How many troopers would be used for traffic control and where they would be located changed throughout the afternoon.

Extra Everett police officers also were out looking for motorists who blocked intersections, or were helping with traffic control, Wentz said. At Broadway and Everett Avenue, an officer wrote one ticket after another.

Some commuters found their way to the U.S. 2 trestle and either Sunnyside Boulevard or Highway 9 to reach Marysville, Arlington and points north.

Even police were taken by surprise.

"The impact, I think, was underestimated," said Bob Stiles, Everett deputy chief. "It has to be corrected. We’ve got to improve the flow of traffic."

Taking a bus wasn’t the solution, either. Everett Transit had to drop part of a run from downtown to the Everett Community College area, and some buses went off their normal routes to avoid the nightmarish congestion.

Still, the line only dropped about 300 riders from its normal day of 5,300, said Tom Hingson, city transportation systems manager.

"Folks got there, and they got there a little late," he said.

The countywide Community Transit planned to change a north Everett route because of the bridge closure, and sent out a rider alert earlier.

The 529 bridge, which was built in 1956, is expected to reopen Sept. 7. It is undergoing mechanical upgrades, which include removing the moving parts. That affects the bridge’s stability. Repair work also includes cleaning and strengthening the bridge to better withstand earthquakes, and removal of lead paint, MacDonald said.

Currently, work on the 529 northbound bridge is being conducted from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., said Victoria Tobin, Department of Transportation spokeswoman. The state contract provides a considerable incentive for the contractor, Mowat Construction Co, to finish early: a $6,000-per-day bonus.

State officials are urging the contractor "to get in and get out," Tobin said.

The current problem should be good preparation for next spring, when the state plans to shut down the southbound lanes of 529 for repairs. That should be easier on commuters than the current situation, because the northbound lanes are just wide enough that the state can run one lane of traffic in each direction.

"I remember when they were doing the 529 bridge (about 1995 or ‘96) and they had it down to two lanes — one north, one south, and it was worse," Braniff said. "But the city has grown, it’s doubled. Marysville has almost doubled in size. Everybody’s living out in the suburbs, Lake Stevens, Monroe, and we don’t have the freeways to accommodate the growth."

You can call Herald Writer Jim Haley at 425-339-3447

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