The new Highway 99 tunnel under downtown Seattle, which will not open until three weeks after the closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. (Washington State Department of Transportation)

The new Highway 99 tunnel under downtown Seattle, which will not open until three weeks after the closure of the Alaskan Way Viaduct. (Washington State Department of Transportation)

Viaduct shutdown: Seattle businesses prepare for gridlock

For three weeks there will be no viaduct, and the replacement Highway 99 tunnel will not yet be open.

  • David Gutman The Seattle Times
  • Monday, December 17, 2018 6:51am
  • Northwest

By David Gutman / The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — The last time the Alaskan Way Viaduct shut down for an extended period, in 2016, peak morning travel times from Bellevue to Seattle nearly doubled. The commute from Federal Way to Seattle jumped by 20 minutes.

The shutdown coming next month will be worse — the longest highway closure the region has ever had.

Government agencies and businesses are preparing: talking to their employees, offering new options and nudging them to change their habits. Some businesses are preparing for the all-but-inevitable loss of customers as people avoid downtown Seattle.

Because all the advice and preparation for the viaduct shutdown next month can be boiled down pretty simply: Avoid driving to downtown, especially during peak commuting hours. Take the bus (there will be more of them) or the train or the passenger ferry or carpool or walk or bike — or skip the trip entirely and work from home.

For three weeks, starting on Jan. 11, there will be no viaduct and the replacement Highway 99 tunnel will not yet be open, leaving already-at-capacity Interstate 5 as the only highway through downtown.

“The three weeks is going to be significantly challenging, particularly for anyone who lives in West Seattle, Pioneer Square, the lower central city. There’s no way to sugarcoat that,” said Mayor Jenny Durkan. “If there is a silver lining to the period of maximum constraint, it will be that people have no choice but to choose other forms of transport; it’s just going to be too hard to be in a vehicle.”

Traffic constrictions will not be limited to areas right around the viaduct. Vehicles will be pushed from the viaduct to surface streets and to I-5. Still more will switch from I-5 to I-405, which will push more cars onto the 520 and I-90 floating bridges.

Twelve bus routes will be kicked off the viaduct and will run modified routes. “They will go to the same places and serve the same or similar stops, but trips will take much longer,” King County Metro writes.

“Everyone traveling in the region will be impacted,” warns the Seattle Department of Transportation.

Local businesses are trying to mitigate those impacts. About 30 have done consultations with Commute Seattle, a nonprofit funded by local transit agencies and the Downtown Seattle Association, on how to best help their employees cope.

About a dozen, including Amazon, Expedia Group and the Gates Foundation, have signed up for a “Move the Needle Challenge” in which they pledge to talk with their employees about the shutdown and nudge them toward alternative commuting options.

But one indicator of how rough the three weeks will be is that a lot of the stuff businesses can do to alleviate congestion — offering free transit passes, encouraging carpools and telework — many are already doing.

Almost every business contacted for this story stressed that a big chunk of their viaduct-shutdown preparations is continuing policies they’ve already implemented.

“It’s important to note that many of our efforts to support employees during this period have long been a part of ongoing employee benefits and communications,” wrote Maureen Decker, an Expedia Group spokeswoman.

Holland America, the cruise-ship company with about 2,200 employees in Lower Queen Anne, began preparing weeks ago. The company is offering promotions with carpool apps Scoop and Waze, and Lime, the bike-share company, to try to spur alternative commute options. It’s also offering free ORCA cards to all employees in January and February; normally, employees who have company-provided parking do not get the free transit pass.

“We’re trying to entice people who normally drive to say, hey, give it a try,” Diana Hice, the company’s director of employee engagement, said.

The company is hosting a vanpool day, to try to match up co-workers who may be able to commute together. King County Metro, which already operates the largest public vanpool program in the country, is waiving fees during the shutdown for new riders who find a seat in an existing vanpool. Metro is also spending $300,000 to subsidize carpool rides through Scoop and Waze.

The Gates Foundation is taking a bit of a carrot-and-stick approach to encourage alternative commutes. The nonprofit, which already offers employees a $3-a-day bonus for each day they don’t drive to work alone, is bumping that to $4 a day to coincide with the viaduct closure. They’re also increasing parking rates for employees in January, to further discourage driving alone to work.

Amazon, which like many large employers already offers its employees free ORCA cards, will soon begin covering the costs of multi-person ride-hailing services like UberPool and LyftLine, up to $160 per month. Amazon also said it would increase the number of private buses it operates for employees, adding four new routes serving Ballard, Magnolia, Fremont and West Seattle.

Transportation agencies are urging employers to offer their workers as many options as they can. King County Metro has long offered free consultations to help employers implement teleworking programs.

Commute Seattle is pushing “flexwork,” a catchall term that encompasses working from home, shifted schedules to avoid peak travel times, compressed workweeks and working from out-of-the-way satellite offices.

“You may not have heard this term before, it’s because we might have made it up,” Madeline Feig, a transportation specialist with Commute Seattle, told employers at a recent information session. “We think that every company in Seattle can do something, whether that’s eliminating one trip off the road, or 5,000.”

The nonprofit is trying to stress that every little bit helps — each employee who works four 10-hour shifts instead of five eight-hour shifts takes one potential car off the road at rush hour. Each employee who starts their workday at 7 a.m. instead of 9 a.m. does the same.

JPMorgan Chase said it is encouraging employees who work in its main downtown Seattle offices to work and take client meetings in branches outside the downtown area.

Grange Insurance, with about 200 employees based in its Belltown offices, has been working for several years to boost the feasibility of working from home, as a way to ease employee commuting pain and improve productivity and retention.

In 2015, the company had about 20 employees who worked from home, usually one day a week each.

Today, 75 percent of employees work from home at least some of the time, with the average being two to three days a week. The company also offers flexibility in work times — within reason — so employees can avoid traveling during the busiest hours.

But teleworking won’t work for everyone. A cook can’t make your lunch by email, and a cashier can’t conference-call into the checkout line.

Tom Douglas, who owns 18 restaurants in and around downtown, said he’s preparing for a 25 percent decline in business as people avoid downtown when the viaduct closes. Since so many of his employees depend on tips, Douglas says his company has been encouraging employees to sign up for as many shifts as possible before the viaduct closure.

The company has added a “hangout” space at its downtown offices, with Wi-Fi, snacks and coffee, for employees who need to arrive early or kill time between shifts because of commute problems. And they’ve been talking with employees about using transit, carpooling and even staying with co-workers who live close to work.

“Mostly we fear the media will go overboard in scaring people away from the businesses downtown,” Douglas said. “I do believe traffic will be worse than usual, but very doable.”

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