expansionjoins-I-90.jpg
The new expansion joints for westbound I-90 at the East Channel Bridge near Mercer Island are ready and waiting at the contractor's yard. Each expansion joint is 92 feet long: 82 feet across the traffic lanes and a ten foot expansion joint over the pedestrian/bicycle trail. (WSDOT Flickr)

What's your plan? I-90 shutdown could create carpocalypse for Seattle-area commute

In KIRO Radio's Chokepoints series, we take a closer look at the traffic issues plaguing commuters in the Puget Sound region.

Starting Friday, westbound Interstate 90 will be reduced to one lane at Bellevue Way Southeast. The closure starts at 9:30 p.m. Friday and the lanes won't reopen until Friday, July 25 at 5 a.m.

What's your plan for getting-around the I-90 closure - a disruption that is going to last a week?

This could produce some of the worst commutes we've seen around Puget Sound in recent memory. You might remember 2009 when the state closed two lanes on the floating bridge. There were seven-mile backups during that closure, and drivers were able to use the express lanes.

This time, the state is closing all but one lane of I-90.

The closure is right where Bellevue Way joins the freeway just west of I-405. All the lanes will be compressed to just one lane right at that spot.

Travis Phelps with the Washington State Department of Transportation said drivers could see 10-mile backups. "Worst-case scenario, plan on adding an hour to your commute," he said.

Drivers making alternate plans is going to be huge for this week-long closure. You don't have to be a victim of this. You can be part of the solution. You might remember the closure of I-5 northbound lanes into Seattle a few years ago. Similar commuting nightmares were projected, but drivers made alternate plans. The horrific backups never materialized.

So what is the state doing that is causing this closure? It is replacing the expansion joints that cross all westbound lanes across the East Channel Bridge, which connects Mercer Island to the Eastside.

"These things are 92-feet long, they're embedded deeply into a concrete bridge, and they are starting to fail," said Phelps.

The contractor can earn up to $100,000, if it finishes the project early.

The biggest gripe about this closure is that the primary alternate route is the 520 bridge, which comes with a toll. Most drivers don't believe it's fair to force people to pay a toll during a closure of this magnitude.

Who should you complain to?

WSDOT has no authority to waive the 520 bridge toll. It doesn't have the ability to suspend the tolls.

Send your complaints to the Washington Transportation Commission, the agency which sets tolls and has the power to waive the tolls during this project, which at this point, it is not going to do.

Here is the statement the WTC sent when I asked about waiving the toll:

The SR 520 Bridge is being built with state gas tax dollars and revenues collected from tolls and the sale of 30-year bonds which the state is on the hook to repay according to a strict plan that does not allow for last minute changes that directly reduce anticipated revenues. The bonds sold to fund the project will be paid from the toll revenue generated and are expected to be paid off in FY 2054. The financial plan we have set forth calls for 2.5% toll rate increases each fiscal year through FY 2017 at which point there is a planned increase of 15%. Thereafter, the toll rates are not expected to increase, as long as we stick to the plan.

In order to fully fund the construction of the new bridge and to be able to repay our debt, we must adhere to the financial plan that sets the course for all toll rate changes - including reductions in the toll rates on specified holiday's: New Year's Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas day. To divert from this plan would be detrimental to the state's financial standing and the financing of the new SR 520 Bridge.

Additionally, to provide a week long exemption from paying tolls on the SR 520 Bridge would result in a loss of revenue estimated to be approximately $1.3 million. This loss is not currently anticipated or planned for, and thus would impact our plan for future toll rate increases. Tolling is a zero sum game - for every free ride given means the lost revenue will have to be made up at a later date by drivers using the SR 520 Bridge. So essentially the regular, day to day users of SR 520 will end up subsidizing the "free pass" I-90 users are seeking, due to the traffic impacts of next week's construction project. Given there are other free alternative routes available, this approach does not seem reasonable nor prudent.

The Commission has a financial obligation to ensure the funding for the bridge is sufficient and secure, in addition to considering the impacts to toll rate payers and to traffic flows on the bridge."

The statement went on to remind drivers of how they could get a Good to Go account.


Chris Sullivan, KIRO Radio Reporter
Chris loves the rush of covering breaking news and works hard to try to make sense of it all while telling stories about real people in extraordinary circumstances.
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