The Viadoom is here. You might know it as the Seattle Squeeze, the Period of Maximum Constraint or Carmageddon. Longer, yet: The longest closure of a major highway — Highway 99 — ever seen in the Puget Sound region, which is predicted to create a three-week traffic jam rippling across the city and region until the new tunnel opens in February.
In the weeks leading up to the closure, many have predicted that congestion, slated to start with Monday’s first commute, would be a “traffic nightmare.” The Seattle Times forecasted that adding more people to the light rail, which was already running at its “ideal capacity of 150 per railcar on average” would mean having “to jostle to board the two- or three-car trains.”
On the first morning of the Squeeze at Capitol Hill Station Monday, no jostling.
Things were pretty much business as usual for Brandi Whigham, on her way to work at Amazon from Seattle’s south end. “I always take the light rail, so I don’t have to fight with traffic, though sometimes it’s hard to find a seat. It’s usually crowded and first come, first served,” Whigham said.
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“This morning, the trains were not as packed, surprisingly.” Other commuters at the station also said they didn’t notice anything different from their regular commute. “I was on the light rail from 8:15-8:30 (CapHill to UW) and it didn’t seem much more crowded than usual to me?” one rider said via Twitter.
“I’m guessing a lot of people don’t really go to work on Mondays and Fridays and that tomorrow is going to be different,” Whigham said. “Thinking about it, I might actually leave ten minutes earlier tomorrow,” Whigham said while the announcements for the next train echoed overhead.
While few if any direct routes to Capitol Hill required a trip on the Viaduct, the interconnectivity of Seattle’s transportation corridors means no corners of the city are untouched by the changes. The touch just might be a little softer than expected.
On Broadway, Alex Lawson told CHS he was pleasantly surprised by his commute time: Just under an hour from Mukilteo; the usual. Lawson, a student at Seattle Central, usually drives on the speedway and then I-5 south to Capitol Hill with his girlfriend, who works at the UPS store on Broadway. “Though I did notice that I-405 was really backed up, it was actually not that bad coming south on I-5,” he says. “We were absolutely worried about the traffic, expecting our commutes to take an hour and a half or two hours each way. We were expecting the worst.”
Lawson was one of many on the Hill who had already made a habit of measures suggested by the City of Seattle to beat the gridlock: using the light rail, ride-sharing and walking or biking to work/school, shifting work hours or working from home.
“It was surprisingly quiet,” said Ed Harrington, a Seattle Central technician who’s been bike-commuting from Greenwood to Capitol Hill for 14 years, of his morning commute. “People take Monday and Tuesday off, so Wednesday is usually the worst.” Asked if he’s bracing himself for Wednesday, he said: “I mean, I got a bike, I don’t care.”
Three car drivers, getting groceries on the Hill, driving to an appointment in Queen Anne and a construction worker heading downtown, respectively, did not seem discouraged by the “Viadoom” nor by the fact WSDOT discouraged people from taking discretionary trips.
Michelle Allen, who lives in Burien, did take City Hall’s advice. She left half an hour early to take the F-line bus and light rail instead of her usual bus today. “Because I didn’t know what kind of confusion I’d encounter downtown,” she said, crossing Broadway to head down E Olive Way on foot at a brisk pace.
Asked what she thinks of the of the “Seattle Squeeze,” Allen said the tearing down of the viaduct exposed the inequality in the city. “I’ve lived in Seattle for 40 years, and I’ve seen extreme amounts of progress in the last ten years. I think we need to be more conscientious of how things will affect a lot of people. People will have to pay a toll for the tunnel. That’s going to cut off a lot of individuals that can’t afford that. Seattle’s cutting out the middle class and low-income [class] with this, but who will it affect?”
Outside the Rite Aid on Broadway, Kathy Amman, waiting for her usual bus 8 to Seattle Center, said she’d been reading the news for updates on the squeeze: Not as bad as expected, she said. “It’s like when it snows here,” Amman said. “Everyone freaks out, but it’s not that serious.”
Officials expect more challenging commute days are still likely to come, of course, even with Monday’s soft start. For now, the biggest traffic annoyance on Capitol Hill might be the TV news helicopters hovering above the neighborhood to report on the Seattle Squeeze. After a few weeks, another piece of infrastructure is scheduled to be shut down as the Battery Street Tunnel closes on February 1st. WSDOT officials don’t have a date yet for when the new waterfront 99 tunnel will open to traffic but a celebration including a fun run, bike ride, and tunnel walk is slated for February 2nd and 3rd.