As Seattle's carefully salted streets became icy sheets Monday, Mayor Mike McGinn saw two years of planning spin sideways.
As Seattle’s carefully salted streets became icy sheets Monday, Mayor Mike McGinn saw two years of planning spin sideways.
“Frankly, the storm overwhelmed our response,” McGinn said, “so we’re going to evaluate the products we’re using and how they went down.”
It’s a markedly different tone from the one taken by former Mayor Greg Nickels when he gave the city’s botched response to the December 2008 snowstorm a “B” grade. Residents never forgave him, and he lost his job.
McGinn said he wasn’t thinking of Nickels’ blunder. But it’s clear from the outcome that the state, Seattle and its hilly suburbs can’t handle a few inches of snow.
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1. Mother Nature 1, Seattle 0
Seattle’s efforts to stay ahead of Monday’s snowstorm by spraying streets with an ice-busting chemical ironically contributed to widespread icing when temperatures dropped, according to city officials and a national expert on the use of salt to clear roads.
A salt solution melted the snow, but the resulting water apparently diluted the brine, making it ineffective when more snow fell and temperatures dropped six degrees Monday.
Steve Pratt, maintenance operations director for the city’s transportation department, said he didn’t learn until about 4 p.m. Monday that the roads were icing up. At that point, gridlock made it difficult for city trucks to reach hot spots quickly enough to treat them with rock salt or additional brine, he said.
In retrospect, the city should have hit those roads with rock salt before the diluted brine could freeze, especially since the forecast was for freezing temperatures, said Pratt, who joined the city five weeks ago from Snohomish County.
Pratt said he didn’t know the brine wasn’t working until a Seattle Times reporter called to ask about ice on the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The absence of cameras on the elevated portion of the viaduct did not allow for a real-time check of conditions there, and verbal reports from city drivers were delayed because road crews were attacking other parts of their routes, he said. The viaduct had to be shut down for hours so traffic could clear and crews could treat the roadway.
“We should have been up there with the rock salt earlier in the day,” Pratt said.
University of Iowa engineering professor Wilfrid Nixon, a winter highway-maintenance expert, said Seattle appears to have caught some bad luck when the snow-busting brine diluted and froze.
“There are going to be circumstances when you can’t get [the brine] to all the places it needs to be in the time you need to get it there, and Mother Nature wins,” Nixon said. “What really hurt you in the end was the low temperatures. No doubt about it.”
As bad as it was, Nixon said, “if they hadn’t done anything, it would have been worse.”
— Susan Kelleher
and Mike Lindblom
2. Where’s my bus?
Even as officials encouraged people to take transit, poor communication and an inability to negotiate slick roads made taking a bus a leap of faith.
About 200 Metro buses — 14 percent of the fleet — jackknifed, broke down or got stuck during Monday evening’s commute. Depending on the route, getting home by bus took riders hours, and articulated buses — half of the fleet — fared the worst.
But Sound Transit’s Sounder trains to Tacoma and Everett and LINK light-rail runs reported only brief lags. None were canceled. On Tuesday, a frozen switch in Tukwila delayed all rail traffic, including Sounder trains.
Stephen Morris’ story was typical. The University of Washington software engineer was on a bus for eight hours Monday trying to get to West Seattle before he finally abandoned route 21 and went on foot.
The bus moved as slowly as one block an hour, Morris said. The driver tried for more than two hours to reach Metro headquarters to get route advice. Passengers — who were squeezed so tightly that they took turns sharing seats — tried to reach Metro on their cellphones as well, Morris said.
The driver finally was told to continue on Admiral Way, even though the steep hill was slick with ice. “It was just a total lack of communication,” Morris said. Once on Admiral Way, the bus jackknifed.
A lack of communication also caused a driver on bus route 355 to take riders on a white-knuckle ride going the wrong way down the Interstate 5 reversible express lanes around 3:20 p.m. Monday. The onramp gate was open, but it’s not clear if the “Do not enter” sign was lit, one passenger said. The bus entered the express lanes heading north, and passengers saw the headlights of southbound cars coming toward them. It was only then that a Metro announcement come over the speaker advising drivers that the lanes were going southbound.
The driver stayed to the far right and exited the freeway near the University District with no mishaps. Metro officials confirmed the incident.
— Katherine Long
3. Express lanes? Oops.
Even after seeing public anger in the rearview mirror, the state Department of Transportation on Tuesday said it made the right call by not opening the I-5 express lanes for northbound commuters Monday night.
The result was commuters stood on packed buses for hours, cars idled on the freeway and spillover traffic gridlocked city streets.
“Clearly, those people would have benefited from having the northbound express lanes,” Dave McCormick, assistant regional manager, acknowledged Tuesday.
However, he said managers didn’t want to divert crews from other trouble spots in the Puget Sound region, where about 100 trucks were at work, to manually switch the gates and de-ice the express-lane ramps. “I believe our snow-fighting operation was enhanced; in the region overall, congestion was reduced,” he said.
Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond was the person who made the call not to switch the express lanes.
Mayor McGinn told KIRO radio that the northbound closure put a lot of pressure on Seattle streets. “I’m loath to jump in and say that was a bad decision or a good decision,” he said, “but it certainly made our job harder.”
Sheila Peel, of Shoreline, said she rode on a Metro bus for five hours from downtown to Northgate, clutching the farebox. Two women in the rear kicked and punched each other and some stepped out to walk up to eight miles, Peel said.
“I think their [DOT's] justification was absolutely horrendous,” she said. “I don’t understand why the offramps and onramps weren’t ready.”
Southbound I-5 may have been worse. The freeway was littered with jackknifed trucks, stalled and abandoned cars, bringing traffic to a standstill for hours. The state wasn’t able to clear the lanes to keep traffic moving.
McCormick said Monday afternoon that the initial I-5 backup — from the University District to Boeing Field — didn’t extend much farther than a typical busy day. But he conceded Tuesday that the delays were much longer than usual. “I can understand people’s frustrations,” he said.
— Mike Lindblom
4. Hey, we’re not Iowa
It’s true Northwesterners whine more about snow than most.
But it’s not just because we’re wimps.
The hills, waterways and climate that elevate the region above, say, Iowa, in livability also contribute to transportation nightmares like the one Monday.
Because of our moderate temperatures, the ground usually is warm when flakes start falling. The snow starts to melt on contact. When temperatures drop, the result is a layer of frozen slush that latches onto the pavement and leaves car wheels spinning.
“That’s the classic problem we have here,” University of Washington meteorologist Cliff Mass said.
It doesn’t happen as often in Iowa and other snow-prone states, because the ground is cold. “You don’t get that ice layer,” Mass said. “The snow blows away, or you can shove it away.”
Not many hills in Iowa, either.
Here, even our freeways feature grades that, when slippery, can cause cars to lose their grip.
Crossing waterways and skirting waterfront requires elevated bridges and roadways that add another frozen layer of hazard.
Many roads will remain icy until temperatures rise Thursday, Mass said. But those scraped or salted Tuesday should stay clear.
— Sandi Doughton
5. Snow freaks us out
You wanna know the real reason why a few flakes paralyze an entire city? Let’s be blunt: We can’t handle it. We get behind the wheel and make decisions that are, well, strange.
Local law-enforcement officials confirm this, although they phrase it slightly differently. So does just about anyone with a penchant for straight talk.
Luke Burbank, co-host of Ross and Burbank on KIRO-FM, said he believes it’s a combination of being both terrified and smug.
“The terror part makes us drive three miles an hour down I-5 when there’s a tiny bit of snow on THE SIDE of the road,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The secretly smug part makes us think we are somehow special, and will be the only person IN HISTORY to successfully navigate our Subaru Outback down the Queen Anne counterbalance when it’s covered in ice.”
Perhaps he thinks that way because he’s lived in New York. Radio host Bill Radke, who recently began co-hosting Seattle’s Morning News on KIRO, initially was a little more defensive. Perhaps that’s because he’s lived in Orlando and Los Angeles.
Seattleites just don’t get enough practice to be good at winter driving, he said. (“You know who else can’t drive in the snow? Hawaiians. And Ecuadoreans. They’re the worst.“) But he did admit to being bemused at things he’s seen on the road. Like windshields covered in snow and ice.
“Driving today, I saw people who had just a little hole, just like a portal so they could just see out through the one square inch they cleared,” he said. “I understand you’re cold, you just want to get in your car and you figure it’s going to magically fly off when you’re going.” It’s not.
After a career driving hydroplanes as well as race cars, Chip Hanauer is a little more blunt.
“They’re driving like morons,” he said. They drive too fast. They try to turn or stop or start abruptly, oblivious to the notion that those things will make them skid, and when they skid, they lose control.
“In a great race driver, there’s a nerve ending that goes from his butt to all four of those tires,” Hanauer said. “He can feel exactly how much adhesion each of those tires has at any given moment. It’s called car control.”
Seattle drivers? They might have the nerve ending, he conceded. “But maybe it doesn’t go all the way to their brain.”
Hanauer actually likes to drive in snow, and he has the skills to do it. But he’s no dummy. He just stayed at home Tuesday.
— Maureen O’Hagan
Seattle Times staff reporter Emily Heffter contributed to this report.