Washington state transportation staff warned 2022 would be “the summer of lane closures,” but none has triggered more heartbreak and fury than last weekend’s shutdown of westbound Interstate 90 at Mercer Island.

Many drivers reported being stuck on the island for hours, while spillover traffic on the Eastside lengthened what are normally 15-minute drives to an hour. Thousands who guessed they could exit mid-island, and enter the floating bridge at the West Mercer Way onramp, were stymied. Islanders returning home were blocked by regional travelers.

“We had no signs. I was stuck on a bus for three hours; we only moved two miles. It was poor planning of city transportation officials,” tweeted a traveler going toward the island from Bellevue.

Motorists second-guessed the Washington State Department of Transportation’s strategy to replace a worn expansion joint and barricade all four mainline lanes during the Friday afternoon commute, Saturday’s Huskies game and Sunday’s Seahawks game.

Is WSDOT to blame, or the motoring public? An obvious answer is both.

“To me, the big key was a lack of information, and the other thing was a lack of alternatives,” said Mark Hallenbeck, director of the Washington State Transportation Center at the University of Washington. He also questions the timing, but doesn’t know if WSDOT could have chosen another weekend before the rainy season. “I decline to lay blame, but definitely things could have been done better.”

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The agency said it will study last weekend’s traffic jams and look for ways to improve.

A lot went haywire.

Project schedules

Before the job started, WSDOT preemptively defended the timing, blaming supply chain issues for delaying the job “several months.” The project needed to be completed in good weather conditions to allow the concrete to cure, engineer Shawn Wendt said in a statement.

Not many convenient dates existed, considering that the previous Saturday, the state closed nearby Interstate 405 for urgent replacement of a collapsing stream culvert.

House Transportation Committee Chair Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, said he’s not going to criticize WSDOT’s project sequence. “We’re in a situation where we’re behind on preservation and maintenance work. It takes a lot of time and road closures, and inconvenience for the public,” he said.

WSDOT managed to reopen all lanes by 3:30 p.m. Sunday, earlier than the announced 5 a.m. Monday completion. That was good for late Sunday travelers, but raises the question of whether WSDOT’s shutdown should have begun Friday night, instead of obstructing three lanes Thursday and four lanes earlier Friday.

“Friday afternoon is the worst traffic, and they were done midday Sunday,” Hallenbeck noted. On the other hand, maybe contractors thought they needed 12-to-13 more hours, he said.

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WSDOT offered some relief by timing little or no roadwork on Interstate 5 in Sodo near Interstate 90 the past two weekends, avoiding a “double whammy” of blockages. But the I-5 express lanes closed last weekend for construction of a future carpool-bus connection at Highway 520, reducing the North End’s capacity for detours.

“We are truly sorry for the delays experienced by travelers on Friday and over the weekend,” said a statement Monday evening by WSDOT. “Though we tried to raise awareness about this closure, this project has highlighted the need to do better. We are committed to providing the best service we can for our constituents and will be reviewing our actions for lessons to be learned and implemented.”

Public messaging

The state publicized the I-90 closures like many others, using news releases and a news conference. No fewer than 16 electronic signboards over freeways warned drivers beforehand.

News organizations publicized pending lane closures and WSDOT tweeted all weekend warning drivers to stay away from the work zone.

But nowadays, it’s difficult to cut through the “white noise” of information bombardment, Hallenbeck said.

“I didn’t know about it, and I’m a transportation professional,” said Hallenbeck, who noticed the snarls and detoured via Highway 520, then Highway 522 on separate trips west from Issaquah.

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One disadvantage this time, he said, was the uniqueness of the Mercer Island shutdowns, compared to I-5 in Sodo, where travelers adjusted to constant lane reductions most summer weekends in 2021 and 2022 by canceling trips, detouring or using transit. Commuters would have seen WSDOT signs last week, but sporadic travelers wouldn’t, he said.

The public may have overlooked I-90 warnings, he said, because after past hype, the congestion in Sodo wasn’t disastrous.

“It’s really hard to get these things through to people,” he said.

Twitter and Facebook messages reach relatively few people, said Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, ranking minority member of the House Transportation Committee, calling it a “communication breakdown on a pretty epic level.”

Some drivers complained navigation apps didn’t warn about the bottleneck.

Tracy Taylor Turner, a former television traffic reporter, said she was upset when drivers contacted her, then she couldn’t find fresh stories online by news organizations Saturday morning. “In a situation such as this, I believe they [news outlets] should have had someone tweeting and making a presence online about what was going on,” she said.

AAA Washington isn’t taking sides, but episodes like this are a good reminder to keep the gas tank at least half-full before setting out on a trip, said spokesperson Kelly Just.

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WSDOT anticipates resorting to television and print ads during early 2024, when massive I-5 redecking is planned between downtown Seattle and Northgate, spokesperson Tom Pearce said. “We could be closing two lanes of I-5 for a couple months,” he said. Previously, the state spent $4.4 million to market the new Highway 99 toll tunnel.

Dead-end detours

WSDOT staff thought they were doing travelers a favor by splitting the joint-replacement into phases, with the bike lane and West Mercer Way onramp blocked the previous weekend, followed by the mainline lanes this past weekend, rather than both halves simultaneously.

That strategy led to more confusion than convenience.

Through either cleverness or inattention, many attempted to exit I-90 on the island, then weave to the West Mercer onramp, finding gridlock instead. Others found an overpass and reversed course back to Bellevue.

When he passed by, Hallenbeck noticed clogs on both Highway 520, and on
I-90 at Eastgate where there’s nearly always a snarl downhill at the I-405 junction. So it’s understandable why drivers might continue west on I-90 and go onto Mercer Island, he said.

The transportation department initially kept West Mercer Way access open at the request of the city of Mercer Island, so residents, including people going to Rosh Hashana observances, could get to Seattle, Pearce said. However, city spokesperson Mason Luvera said Tuesday there was never a formal request by the city of Mercer Island to keep the on-ramp open; that was a WSDOT choice which was also suggested by some island residents, Luvera said.

At 7:30 p.m. Friday, Mercer Island asked WSDOT to close the onramp, but it remained open overnight to clear stuck drivers off the island, according to Pearce. Roger Millar, the state transportation secretary, participated in “an open line of conversation” Saturday morning with city mayor Salim Nice, to ensure Friday night backups didn’t persist all weekend, a WSDOT spokesperson confirmed Tuesday.

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By mid-day Saturday, contractors barricaded that route, with exemptions for emergency vehicles and transit.

Message signs were changed by 1:45 p.m. Saturday to a more emphatic NO ACCESS TO SEATTLE. A connecting ramp from Bellevue Way Southeast was closed.

Mercer Island police and State Patrol troopers directed traffic away from the closure point, WSDOT said. By afternoon, Pearce said, most drivers managed to avoid dead-end trips onto the island.

Toll holiday?

For some, the state added insult to injury by charging people to cross the Highway 520 floating bridge, rather than making it toll-free during the I-90 closures.

WSDOT said that it needs permission from the Washington State Transportation Commission, which votes on toll rates, and also said the toll income is needed to repay project debt.

It’s always been state practice to collect, since 2007. The department and the commission have never declared a toll holiday on Highway 520, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge or Highway 99 tunnel during dozens of lane closures that clogged adjacent highways.

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The second assertion, repaying creditors, is more relevant. About $1.1 billion of the $4.65 billion Highway 520 program is funded by toll-backed bond contracts. The top weekend toll is $2.65 each direction, and the peak weekday rate $4.30, for Good to Go passholders.

Would just a couple of free days tarnish the state’s credit? That’s a technical question suitable for the commission, which didn’t reply to questions Monday. Highway 520 traffic and income was slashed by the pandemic and remote work, which cut the planned revenues by $62.5 million from March 2020 to June 2021. So there’s added pressure to collect money.

“There are challenges enough on toll revenues,” Fey said. “This is a onetime thing, that I don’t think is a burden for people.”