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Traffic backups will be ‘new norm’ after changes to 520, SR 99 tunnel

The commute across the Montlake floating bridge just got a little more difficult. (Chris Sullivan, KIRO Radio)

Drivers likely noticed two significant changes on our commuter routes Monday morning. The changes were made over the weekend and have the potential to add minutes to your drives.

State says goodbye to the old 520 floating bridge

I’ll start with the one that caught a lot of drivers off guard on Monday.

Westbound 520 between Medina and Montlake

The state got rid of one lane of traffic on the bridge connecting the floating bridge and Montlake, shrinking it from three lanes to two. The lane reduction created a five mile backup on Monday morning and 15 minute delays. That is going to be your reality for three years, as the work on the next phase of the 520 project is completed.

“We did see a little bit bigger backup than normal,” Washington State Department of Transportation’s Steve Peer said. “I think that’s going to be the new norm now.”

WSDOT needed that one westbound lane for the next phase of 520 construction. Later this year, all eastbound traffic will be put on that westbound bridge between Montlake and the floating bridge.

“It will take some getting used to,” Peer said. “It’s a new speed limit. It’s 40 miles an hour, so we think the 75,000 vehicles a day that go through here on a regular basis are going to see a change.”

You should plan for an additional ten minutes to get across the lake on 520 during this lane reduction, which should last until 2023.

The next phase of the 520 project will be to demolish the eastbound bridge between Montlake and the floating bridge, and replace it with one just like the westbound direction.

The SR 99 Tunnel

The second change is on northbound Highway 99 at the north end of the Seattle tunnel. The first exit out of the tunnel at Republican routinely backs up because there is only so much room before the light. What drivers have been doing is squeezing next to each other, using the shoulder to create a second lane on the off-ramp.

This has confused the tolling equipment. During testing, this created the potential for mistakes, including over-charging and under-charging.

WSDOT aims to ease transition for coming SR 99 tunnel tolls

The state added flexible pylons to the exit over the weekend to make sure it stays a single lane through the tolling zone. Anyone who thought they were going to scam the tolling equipment by sliding by on the shoulder should think again. The new pylons ensure that only one lane goes through at a time.

These new pylons will likely add a few minutes to your northbound trip through the tunnel.

Tolling begins on November 9. I spoke with the toll division on Monday, and it said there are limited supplies of the free Good-to-Go Passes left during its pre-tolling promotion.

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