‘Sno-Co squeeze’ commuters find ways to cope; relief in sight

MARYSVILLE — Friday was bad.

Monday was a doozy.

Tuesday was no breeze.

These are the dog days of the so-called “Snohomish County squeeze” as construction workers replace I-5 expansion joints between Everett and Marysville.

The maintenance project slowed traffic in previous weeks, but Friday afternoon devolved into a 12-mile backup and Monday and Tuesday reduced traffic to a 10-mile trickle.

Gridlock has spilled into alleys and side streets in north Everett for those zigzagging their way to I-5 or taking Highway 529 across the flats.

“Getting home is pretty miserable,” said Heidi Thoreson, a contract employee for pathology services at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. “It’s taking at least twice as long to get home.”

On Tuesday, her commute to her home on the north end of the Tulalip Indian Reservation took one hour and six minutes.

“I listen to music and tell myself ‘I’m not going to get there any faster if I get upset,’ ” she said.

A couple of key factors are contributing to the snail’s pace.

The far right lane of I-5 leading off of Highway 529 northbound merges into traffic, and a sign tells drivers to yield to vehicles on I-5.

You also can blame Seattle — at least a bit.

Snohomish County is feeling a ripple from the closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle.

“The viaduct isn’t causing this, but it is shifting our traffic patterns,” said Lisa Van Cise, a state Department of Transportation spokeswoman.

Commuters are changing habits, including the times they leave work, hoping to beat the traffic crunch.

“We start to get a backup much earlier than before,” Van Cise said. “You have almost a trickle-down effect.”

Backups lasted until 9 p.m. Friday. By Tuesday, lanes were cleared by 7:45 p.m.

Some level of relief is in sight if the weather cooperates.

By the end of next week, after more re-striping, the merging mess from Highway 529 to I-5 should be improved.

The work on the northbound lanes is expected to be finished by June 16.

Road crews have been replacing 41 expansion joints over I-5 bridges between Everett and Marysville as part of a two-year, $5.3 million project. Weekend lane closures for southbound work already have taken place.

On weekdays, three narrower lanes are available with a 45 mph speed limit.

Most weekends are reserved for replacing the expansion joints, with jackhammers and other preparation work occurring behind concrete barriers during the week. On those weekends, only two narrower lanes are available. No closures are planned during Memorial Day weekend.

Expansion joints allow concrete sections of bridges to expand and contract as temperatures go up and down and traffic loads vary. As the joints deteriorate, they become safety hazards to drivers. They can bend, crack or collapse. The expansion joints being replaced range from 20 to 30 years old.

Tim Vaughan doesn’t get too worked up over the I-5 gridlock.

The Mount Vernon man, who spent much of his childhood in Lynnwood, commutes to his job south of Seattle during the week. He previously worked in downtown Seattle, a big reason for the 494,000 miles he put on a 1996 Toyota pickup truck.

He’s accustomed to slowdowns in north King County through Lynnwood and Everett.

“You just exercise patience,” he said. “You find some entertainment on the radio, stay off the cellphone and you’ll get through it.”

During the recent construction on the Steamboat Slough and Ebey Slough bridges, he has noticed the frustration among drivers not using turn signals and desperately looking for ways to weave through the congestion. Thoreson on Tuesday saw similar impatience on the streets leading onto Broadway in Everett.

Vaughan well remembers 2001. For longtime commuters, that was the summer of the snarl. Northbound Highway 529 was closed several weeks for construction.

“It was brutal,” he said.

On his way home Monday, he stopped in Everett to carpool with a friend. They left around 5:40 p.m. and pulled into Mount Vernon around 7:10 p.m. Tuesday he left a little earlier and the commute was a bit better, taking roughly 70 minutes from Everett.

The late arrival didn’t change dinner plans. He had pork chops and vegetables Monday and spaghetti Tuesday.

He said he accepts the slow commute for what it is: a necessary inconvenience for an important maintenance project that must be done.

Dealing with bottlenecks just makes him appreciate his destination all that much more.

“Getting home has been a delight, quite frankly, because you are home,” he said.

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

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