The steady snow that hit Seattle and Western Washington on Wednesday is tapering off, and officials are looking ahead to morning commute concerns.

Share story

The steady snow that boosted snowfall totals as much as an inch an hour in parts of Western Washington Wednesday morning eased in the early afternoon, but transportation officials are looking ahead to Thursday morning’s commute, when refreezing slush poses a severe threat of spinouts and bottlenecked highway ramps.

Washington State Department of Transportation says the major highways in Western Washington were mostly bare and wet by mid-afternoon Wednesday, but crews will continue to work around the clock as temperatures dip below freezing.

In Seattle, workers on 12-hour work shifts will sprinkle salt on major arterials and bus routes. At the same time, the Seattle Department of Transportation discourages people from driving Thursday, saying it’s better to leave the roads to plows, emergency vehicles and transit. Spokesman Rick Sheridan said there will be special emphasis on First Hill streets that serve several hospitals just east of Interstate 5.

Still, there’s a good chance that people could wake up to icy roads anyway, said Barb Graff, director of the city’s emergency management department.

“We’re trying to manage it aggressively,” Graff said. But there were too many variables to predict just what the morning commute would look like, she said.

Another problem that could return Thursday is the slippery hill on Third Avenue from Yesler Way down to Washington Street. On Wednesday morning, bus drivers were ordered by King County Metro Transit to go down the hill only one at a time — causing backups of up to 12-15 buses on southbound Third Avenue. The idea was to avoid having multiple buses jackknife or collide. This in turn delayed service to outlying neighborhoods. “The idea was to not end up with gridlock,” said Jim Jacobson, deputy general manager of King County Metro Transit.

In other areas, for example California Avenue Southwest and portions of Denny Way, the city’s pre-snowfall salt brine applications looked successful, as the snow flaked or melted instead of sticking hard to the pavement. A single plow worked exclusively on the Alaskan Way Viaduct, said Sheridan, and the city didn’t need to scoop away snow with a front-end loader there, as street maintenance director Steve Pratt had prepared to do.

By mid-day Wednesday, major roadways that had been treated with brine appeared slushy, but passable, according to a spot check by the Times.

There were exceptions, including short stretches of road around Swedish and Harborview medical centers on First Hill, that appeared unplowed and packed with snow. But people driving on major streets appeared to have at least one lane in each direction they could navigate.

King County Metro Transit remains on snow routes, after 30 lines were closed Wednesday. Officials said they haven’t decided as of 3 p.m. whether to make changes Thursday. Travelers should look for updates tonight and tomorrow morning at Metro has a person in the SDOT command center who is able to ask the city to send plows to trouble spots.

“We’re pretty comfortable with the way today played out. We didn’t get as much snow as projected, but there was certainly enough to cause havoc on the roadways. It was good that people stayed home today,” said Jacobson.

About 50 or so Metro buses were stalled or stranded Wednesday, he said — much better than some past storms when over 200 buses were stopped.

Jacobson said he’s generally satisfied with the planning by city and state, including an emphasis on clearing bus routes.

“You have a giant snowstorm, there’s no way anybody can clear every street as much as everyone would like it to be during the middle of a storm.”

Link light-rail trains will run empty overnight to keep ice from forming on overhead power wires. Ridership was low entering the city but most seats were full heading to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Wednesday morning, according to Sound Transit.

Seattle has closed a couple dozen streets, including some important arterials such as South McClellan Street above Rainier Avenue South, and the slopes of Queen Anne Avenue North.

It could be a couple of days or longer before much of the snow and slush is washed away, according to the National Weather Service.

By noon, about 5 inches of snow was reported in many areas around Seattle, with much higher totals reported to the south, including 8 inches in Tacoma, and 20 inches in Thurston and Lewis counties.

Brad Colman of the National Weather Service said the morning’s steady and widespread snowfall was expected to be “gradually tapering off this afternoon.”

Temperatures were expected to stay at or below freezing during the day Wednesday, dropping into the 20s overnight.

Julie Startup, spokeswoman for the State Patrol in King County, said there is concern about freezing rain hitting.

“Conditions on the roadway are already poor, the last thing we want to add to that is a freezing situation. If the freezing rain comes I’m hopeful people will drive carefully and get off the road,” Startup said.

Wednesday night should be “a quiet winter scene for the Seattle area,” Colman said, and moisture that is on streets is likely to freeze overnight.

Thursday could see a rain-snow mix at times as temperatures creep up to the mid-30s.

Temperatures are likely to reach into the 40s by Friday, with rainfall light during the day and building through the night.

Areas that have had the heaviest snowfall face the possibility of local flooding as rain changes the snow into slush.

Bob Calkins, spokesman for the Washington State Patrol in Olympia, said between 9 a.m. Tuesday and 9 a.m. Wednesday, troopers responded to 726 collisions. To give a some perspective, for the same 24-hour period in 2011, a day without snow, troopers were dispatched to 83 collisions, Calkins said.

Wednesday morning, falling snow had created a tough commute across Western Washington.

“It’s compact snow and ice pretty much everywhere,” said Vickie Sheehan, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, describing the roads Wednesday morning. Marybeth Turner, a spokeswoman for Seattle’s Department of Transportation, said arterial streets throughout the city were in “pretty good condition.”

Some streets on hills were closed, but it’s a very small number, Turner said. Even the infamous Denny and Melrose intersection, which leads to a steep slope bridging Interstate 5, was open.

The city used 4,169 gallons of salt brine and 113 tons of granular rock salt on the roads Tuesday, Turner said.

Both Turner and Sheehan said traffic was considerably lighter this morning than on a normal weekday.

In West Seattle, hardly anyone was on the roads during the early commute. Downtown buses were taking on just a handful of people each.

Metro buses have been traveling their snow routes since Sunday and canceled 30 routes Tuesday in anticipation of Wednesday’s storm.

Riders were urged people to check online before heading out, at

Seattle Times staff reporters Craig Welch and Susan Kelleher contributed to this report