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I-90 lanes into Seattle are never coming back, and other changes

I-90 drivers are going to have to wait more than a year to get their normal configuration through the collector-distributor lanes, and the merging room you had near Madison Street is gone for good.  Ramp meters are also coming to the lanes.

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The average morning commute on westbound I-90 into Seattle has gone up by about 10 minutes since the Washington Department of Transportation changed the lane configuration in the collector-distributor lanes to accommodate the Revive I-5 project, according to my morning commute research. It made Madison Street “exit only” and eliminated about a thousand feet of merging space after that exit. The state also blocked off one of the two lanes leading to I-5 north to create a safety zone for the construction project.

That one thousand feet is never coming back, and that longer one lane configuration for the merge to I-5 northbound is going to stick around through another construction project that isn’t even going to start until next year.

“We need to leave it in that configuration over the winter because we have another project next year,” WSDOT’s Tom Pearce said. “We’re going to put some barriers out there instead of the barrels to funnel the traffic down from two lanes to one.”

The state believes it would be too confusing for drivers to give them back both lanes to I-5 until that next project starts, only to switch it back later.

And why keep Madison Street “exit only?”

“That was something that was planned, and it has worked-out well,” Pearce said. “We understand that it’s tough on some of the drivers who are trying to get onto northbound I-5, but it’s very good for drivers who are getting off at Madison.”

Red lights

And that’s just the start of the changes coming to westbound I-90 to I-5 north.   Improvements to the mainline into downtown should help travel times improve into the city. The state’s Marquis Allen said they will be adding ramp meters to the collector-distributor lanes to help ease the flow onto I-5.   Ramp meters will be added just after the Madison Street exit.  The goal is to improve travel times into Seattle and fix the slog from the West Seattle Bridge into downtown.

“I know metering can be a dirty word sometimes,” Allen said. “Some folks like it. Some folks don’t, but it really does help traffic flow more efficiently.”

You read that correctly. During peak drive times, you will be forced to hit a ramp meter while coming from I-90 westbound to I-5 northbound.  It will likely add a little slowing to the I-90 drive but should shave minutes on I-5.  That’s going to be a big change for drivers who consider the collector-distributor lanes part of the freeway.  They are, in essence, ramps between freeways.  Metering them will make the entire freeway system work more efficiently.

“We expect a learning curve,” he said.  “There’s always an adjustment any time there’s traffic, but the improvements that we’re going to get out of this once everyone gets the hang of it is going to be worth it.”

To make this a little ramp metering addition more palatable, that thousand feet of merging space that we’ve lost after Madison Street will be used to create a peak-use shoulder lane that will also have a ramp meter. It will be available during the heaviest traffic. That will give us three lanes metering onto I-5 during the busiest times of day.

As part of this project, the Seneca “exit only” lane on I-5 north will also be converted into a through lane that extends under the Convention Center.  That will allow drivers to either exit at Seneca Street or continue on. That should ease some of the daily slowing heading into downtown as well.

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