Late arrivals, reroutes, altered schedules and telecommuting are sure to interrupt business as usual for employers and workers on both sides of Lake Washington this week, now that westbound Interstate 90 is reduced to one lane in Bellevue.
To avoid the lane closures creating what some are already calling an upcoming “carpocalypse,” transportation officials say it’s critical that employers get as much of their workforce as possible to telecommute, shift schedules, carpool or take the bus.
Businesses large and small were still figuring out at the end of last week who might be able to telecommute and who needs to be at work.
“The topic is swirling around the office. Our marketing team was just discussing alternating telecommute days,” said Melanie Cochrun, marketing manager of GLY Construction in Bellevue.
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Until at least 5 a.m. Friday, westbound Interstate 90 traffic will be choked down to one lane at Bellevue Way Southeast, producing backups that traffic engineers say could exceed 10 miles. Single-lane onramps from Bellevue Way Southeast and Interstate 405 will funnel drivers into three westbound lanes that will remain open between the choke point and Mercer Island.
As drivers detour around the I-90 construction project — to replace two expansion joints on the East Channel Bridge — heavy backups are expected on westbound Highway 520 and in both directions on Interstate 405.
To make the drive from Issaquah to Seattle an hour long, Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) traffic engineers say about 60 percent of the 85,000 drivers who travel west across the bridge on an average day will need to stay home or use alternate routes.
The choices made by 43,000 Puget Sound-area Microsoft workers will have a big impact. Some will be in Atlanta for the annual Microsoft Global Exchange conference that runs Tuesday through Thursday. Others say their managers allow for telecommuting and flexible scheduling.
“Decided to work from home about an hour ago,” said Brian Dunlay, a Microsoft software engineer, at the end of the day Friday after his manager quickly approved his request. “I suspect most (managers) won’t mind when it’s possible to.”
The single Microsoft shuttle that usually crosses I-90 from Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood will take the 520 bridge instead this week, said Microsoft spokesman Lou Gellos.
Other large employers such as Bellevue-based Expedia say most of their 2,600 employees are ready to telecommute if necessary.
About 45 percent of those workers use free ORCA passes, and the company is encouraging drivers to join a King County Metro van pool for the week ahead.
T-Mobile spokeswoman Anne Marshall said that its Bellevue office employees have a telecommuting option, and several are also forming off-site work groups.
The same flexibility goes for companies like SkyTap, a software business in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. One of its software developers, Matt Mehlhope, 27, is taking the company up on an offer to telecommute to avoid a long bus ride from Bellevue’s Eastgate neighborhood.
“A bunch of people asked and they just said, ‘OK, great.’ No questions asked,” said Mehlhope. “That’s probably easier for us to do than it is for some other people.”
PCC Logistics, for example, relies on westbound truckers to deliver goods on time to its Port of Seattle facility. The company handles import, export, refrigerated and general cargo for customers.
Even though its trucks will be rerouting, Beth Sanchez, the company’s customer-service manager, says that the company is still warning customers that there could be long and unpredictable delivery delays.
“Not good, is it? There’s a point where you can only do so much to get around this,” Sanchez said.
Companies and workers will also have to deal with the costs of extra gas and, if using the westbound 520 bridge, the tolls. The state has no plans to waive or reduce tolls for crossing 520 and will be allowing intermittent openings for boats.
The decision to not reduce tolls for those traveling westbound has angered some daily bridge-crossers.
The conservative Washington Policy Center also has criticized the state Transportation Commission over its perceived lack of urgency to attempt to reduce the toll. WSDOT says it notified the commission July 1 and July 10 about the upcoming bridge work.
The state would likely make as much money from the bridge as it does on an average week — about $1.3 million — if it reduced tolls for increased westbound traffic, says Bob Pishue, director of Washington Policy Center’s Coles Center for Transportation.
In a blog post, Pishue notes that taxpayers already are paying more than $100 million extra for the bridge than initially expected.
“To some, it seems unfair that the public is asked to pay over one hundred million dollars more than they thought, but can’t get a week’s worth of toll relief when times get tough,” Pishue wrote.
Some Eastside businesses — especially restaurants and bars near the Lake Washington bridges — aren’t as worried about this week.
They’re hoping more commuters opt to shop and dine with them in the afternoon and evening until traffic jams simmer down.
“We’re expecting to be busy the next week,” said Danielle Griffith, who has owned The Pumphouse Bar & Grill with her husband, Bob Griffith, for all their 36 years of marriage. “We’re just two blocks east of I-405 on Northeast 8th in Bellevue, so hopefully people will come inside and enjoy some great food and drink in air conditioning while they’re waiting for the traffic to clear up.”
There’s likely only going to be one way workers can cross the bridge without severe delays: biking.
Although bikers will be slightly delayed by five to 10 minutes as escorts guide them around the construction zone, cyclists should be able to commute across the bridge without any other interruption.