I-405 misery: 2 megaprojects could tackle chronic delays

Interstate 405 from Lynnwood to Tukwila is one of the most congested corridors in the region. Lawmakers hope a new transportation package will address some of the worst choke points, while commuters say getting around requires planning, patience and sometimes advance meditation.

By Lynn Thompson, December 22, 2014, Seattle Times



The traffic reporter on drive-time radio had a single word to describe a recent evening commute on Interstate 405 — “brutal.”


Mohammad Heidari, a Boeing propulsion engineer, stayed at his office in Mukilteo until 8 p.m. to avoid a backup made worse by darkness and heavy rain. It was almost 9 o’clock by the time he reached his home in the Lakemont neighborhood of Bellevue, about 32 miles away.


“There is no back way to Bellevue,” he said.


Colleague Tony Gilbert left at 7:30, when an online traffic map showed that I-405 was moving a little better than Interstate 5. It took him an hour and a half to get home to Tacoma. If he’d left during rush hour, he said, it could have taken three hours — or more.


Fueled by growth on the Eastside, I-405 is second only to I-5 in state highway traffic volumes and delays. The corridor has fewer transit options because its jobs and housing are spread so far apart. Light rail to Bellevue and then to the Microsoft campus in Redmond won’t be finished until 2023. And on the misery index, a commute between Renton, Bellevue and Lynnwood, with up to eight hours of congestion and slow traffic every day, ranks near the top for the region.


“I try not to think of all the other things I could be doing with my time,” said Gilbert, a Boeing manager who, when he was first hired, worked in Renton, a reasonable 25-minute drive from home.


Gov. Jay Inslee’s transportation package, announced last week, includes two megaprojects that business and elected leaders say would do the most to address chronic choke points and delays on the Eastside and, in turn, ease some of the backups into and out of Seattle at Highway 520 and Interstate 90.


Those projects include $1.4 billion to complete the west end of the 520 bridge connection to I-5, and widening I-405 from Bellevue to Renton. A state project to widen the freeway from Bellevue to Lynnwood and create two tolled express lanes in each direction is set to open in fall 2015.


In the meantime, officials say, the increasing gridlock is costing the region time, money, air quality and, according to a growing body of research, human happiness.


“I’m convinced that if every legislator had to commute from Olympia to Redmond for two weeks, we’d have everybody ready to sign (a new transportation package) on the bottom line,” said Sen Andy Hill, R-Redmond.


State traffic studies confirm the frustration. A congestion report released in October by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) found that the time lost to slow and stalled traffic along I-405 rose almost 40 percent between 2011 and 2013, and was up 78 percent from 2009.


A 16-mile trip from Lynn­wood to Bellevue, for example, averaged 44 minutes during the morning commute. But to ensure on-time arrival 19 out of 20 days, drivers needed to allow almost 70 minutes.


“Everybody thinks I-5 is the worst, but I-405 is the most congested,” said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island and chair of the House Transportation Committee. “What I hear the most is that it’s so unreliable. People allow more time and end up being an hour early. If they leave at the right time, they end up being late. That’s what’s so frustrating.”


Fueled by growth


How did the Eastside commute get so bad? The most obvious answer is more people in their cars. While Seattle’s population grew about 7 percent from 2000 to 2010, the population on the Eastside, from roughly the Snohomish County line to Newcastle and everything east of Lake Washington to the crest of the Cascades, increased 15 percent. The population on the Eastside is now about 565,000 compared with Seattle’s 640,500, according to King County demographer Chandler Felt. South King County accounts for an additional 745,000 people, he said.


And many workers on the Eastside commute from Snohomish County, which also experienced double-digit growth over the past decade.


What’s more, only about a quarter of Eastside workers commute to Seattle, according to the Puget Sound Regional Council. That means projects aimed at easing the east-west commute, such as widening I-520 and adding light rail to Bellevue, may only indirectly ease the north-south crunch.


Business leaders say the chronic congestion hurts productivity.


Jim Kleppe, co-chairman of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce’s transportation committee, said colleagues at his Redmond engineering and environmental firm, Golder Associates, have to build time into their schedules to get from job sites to client meetings to family responsibilities like picking up kids from day care.


And not only productivity is hurt, he said, but also Eastside businesses.


“I can’t tell you how often someone says that they don’t want to go somewhere because of the traffic and lack of alternatives to get there,” said Kleppe, U.S. infrastructure lead for engineering at his firm.


He’s also troubled by the potential threat to public safety. “There’s no resiliency in the system for a traffic incident or major weather. And the Eastside is growing. What happens in an earthquake? Emergency vehicles have trouble getting through now,” said Kleppe.


The Eastside also has lagged Seattle in transit ridership. The WSDOT congestion report found that about 744,000 people rode transit annually along the I-405 corridor, compared with almost 14 million along I-5. But the growing congestion between Lynnwood and Tukwila may be encouraging more people to take the bus, said Geoff Patrick, spokesman for Sound Transit.


Ridership is up to more than 1 million through the first three quarters of 2014, he said, on express routes from Lynnwood to Bellevue, Everett to Bellevue, and Auburn and Kent to Redmond. Improvements to 405, such as the coming tolled HOT lanes, could also make bus trips faster and more reliable.


People interested in encouraging greener transportation options say better bus service on the Eastside is hampered by historic land-use patterns.


“Transit works best in denser suburbs and urban places where individual buses can serve lots of people,” said Clark Williams-Derry, deputy director of the Sightline Institute, a Seattle think tank.


Williams-Derry is also familiar with the growing number of studies from around the world that show that long commutes make people more stressed, more tired, less healthy and less happy.


“People who live in the suburbs think they’ll be happier with a bigger house and a bigger yard. But it is a choice — one with serious consequences for their health and well-being,” he said.


Low on happiness


Those feelings of frustration and fatigue are echoed by people who make long commutes on the Eastside. In a completely unscientific survey, only one Eastside worker expressed any happiness about her commute.


Carolyn Hope said that when she rides her bike 15 miles from her home in Shoreline to her job in the Redmond city parks department, “It’s so much better” than when she drives or takes the bus.


She’s a big believer in biking and transit as ways to reduce her carbon footprint, but said it takes her three different buses to reach home and sometimes as long as two hours when the connecting buses are delayed. When that happens, Hope said, she thinks: “Tomorrow I’m going to drive.”


Boeing engineers Mohammad Heidari and Tony Gilbert sometimes meet in South Bellevue to carpool, saving as much as half an hour by using the HOV lanes to get past backups in Bellevue. But both men have frequent meetings out of the office, meaning most of the time, each drives to work in Mukilteo alone.


So far, they both say, they love their job more than they hate their commute.


Moving closer to work also isn’t an option for Gilbert, at least not for two years until his son graduates from high school in Tacoma. To prepare himself for the drive, Gilbert said, he gets in his car and meditates.


He tells himself why he’s commuting, what his objective is and that there’s no point in hurrying or getting stressed.


“When I get home, I get home. It’s just a few years more,” he said.


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