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Officials: Seattle’s frustrating Tuesday commute couldn’t be prevented

Tuesday’s crash in south Seattle that made for one of the most difficult southbound commutes in memory has many people angrily asking why SR 99 was shut down, and if anything different could have been done to help get traffic moving during such a major incident.

A two-car head-on collision with serious injuries on East Marginal Way near the West Seattle Bridge Tuesday afternoon prompted the Seattle Police Department to close SR 99 all the way back to the Battery Street Tunnel. As the investigation and cleanup continued, thousands of cars flooded surrounding surface streets, snarling the area and backing up roadways well into North Seattle.

Between normal afternoon traffic and thousands of additional drivers trying to make it to the Mariners game, many were stuck on the road for hours. Among them, KIRO Radio’s Tom Tangney.

“I got on a bus at 5 o’clock. That should get me downtown about 5:30. I got off the bus and made it to the theater at 7:30. I live in Greenwood, in North Seattle. And it was backed up from that point on.”

Seattle Police Department spokesman Patrick Michaud says the closure was “regrettable” but necessary to aid in the response and keep other cars from driving into the area of the heavy rescue.

“We don’t want to be shutting down roads if we don’t have to,” he says. “We needed to make the scene as safe as possible for all the firefighters, medics, officers and victims.”

Amidst plenty of criticism, Michaud says the department will review its procedures to determine if there ways to better minimize impacts in the future in the event of a major accident.

It’s the second time in less than a month an incident on the road in South Seattle snarled traffic across the city. A damaged steel plate on southbound I-5 May 29 near SoDo forced emergency lane closures just as the morning commute got underway, causing hours-long gridlock.

The decision to close SR 99 was made by the Seattle Police Department, leaving the Seattle Department of Transportation to handle the mess. With thousands of cars flooding surface streets, SDOT was able to slightly adjust traffic signals to improve flow as much as possible. But with most streets already maxed-out during peak times, spokesman Rick Sheridan says there’s little else they could do.

“There’s no place for those vehicles to go. It’s not as if you put police officers out at every intersection you would move traffic more rapidly through a completely congested system,” Sheridan says.

He says in the event of a major incident like Tuesday, the department’s emphasis is on providing as much information as possible to get people to delay their trips or change their routes.

“The only thing we can do is shape behavior at that point. That’s why we spend money on things like variable message signs to provide people information so they can make better decisions and also using social media to essentially help the public know what’s going on and make informed decisions.”

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