On the first day of heavy traffic since last weekend’s snowstorm, Wednesday’s peak backup on State Route 99 in Seattle extended four miles from the north end of the new SR 99 tunnel south through its two-mile length, and two miles outside the tunnel beyond that.
Now the question is, will this become the new normal?
The bottom line, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), is nobody knows what the new normal will look like.
There are no traffic studies predicting the future, and the tunnel makes many changes to traffic options at the north, south, and middle of where we used to drive the old Alaskan Way Viaduct through the city. For its part, SDOT says it will wait around three weeks before making any changes to stoplight timing or other adjustments until things settle down a bit.
For now, there are some significant caveats to keep in mind, and the biggest one is physical. The northbound SR 99 offramp going to the south end of downtown near the sports stadiums is not yet finished.
The ramp leading to a brand-new stretch of Dearborn Avenue South was never intended to be open along with the rest of the tunnel project on February 4. It was hoped that it could open on February 11, but with this week's snow more snow expected Friday into Saturday, contractors will struggle to make that target date, though they were hard at work Wednesday.
WSDOT is now using language giving themselves another week to "git 'er done."
Connected to unfinished offramp is the fact that the traffic backup into the tunnel began at the so-called "Mercer Ramp," which connects to Republican Street in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood.
We may never know the answer to this question, but if commuters got onto SR 99 unaware of the Dearborn ramp closure, this was their next opportunity get off.
Second, there is still an impact from the snow. With major roads clear and schools now open, school districts like Seattle's started two hours late. According to KING 5 Traffic Reporter Cam Johnson, school-related trips can account for 30 percent of commuter traffic, and not just busses.
On the face of it, that might suggest traffic was lighter than normal. There were 22,145 trips counted through the tunnel on Monday when the city looked more like a Federal holiday due to the snow.
We won't get numbers on Wednesday’s commute until Thursday.