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caption: It'll be like Mercer Street, but everywhere. Traffic in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood. 
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It'll be like Mercer Street, but everywhere. Traffic in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

2019: The year Seattle's traffic nightmare REALLY begins

Traffic engineers have a nickname for the years 2019 to 2021, when a slew of new megaprojects will get underway in downtown Seattle around the same time. They call it “The Period of Maximum Constraint.” Translated into plainspeak, it means during those three years, we’ll be up the creek in a leaky canoe without a paddle.

First, there’s the Washington Convention Center, which will begin a massive expansion. That project will require buses to get out of the downtown tunnel and onto city streets earlier than they would have otherwise.

Next, there’s the demolition of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and the redevelopment of the waterfront.

And, oh yeah, and people are still moving here, and we’re building places for them to live, too.

That’s a lot of disruption for an already stressed city to absorb.

Seattle Department of Transportation’s Scott Kubly says during those difficult three years, it’ll take longer to get through downtown, if we don't take action.

“If you’re in a car going down 5th Avenue, it could take you as much as seven minutes longer. And that’s on average,” Kubly saus. “The really daunting thing is that – as our streets get more crowded, they get less reliable. And so the days when we have those epically bad commutes – are more frequent.”

Kubly says taking no action isn’t an option. He’s joined with Sound Transit, King County Metro Transit and the Downtown Seattle Association to come up with strategies to minimize congestion from all that construction.

Planners are considering some changes. Like letting mass transit dominate 1st, 3rd and 5th avenues, and taking buses off 2nd and 4th avenues so those streets can serve more cars, trucks and bikes.

Guess what kind of transit will be running on 1st Avenue? Streetcars! Yes, Seattle’s two stumpy streetcar lines will finally be joined into a single line.

Sound Transit will add more trains through the tunnel, as frequently as every six minutes during peak periods once buses are placed on the surface streets.

Metro could redirect more bus routes to terminate at Light Rail stations north and south of downtown, requiring riders to hop on rail to get through the city.

As for those buses that will still pass through the city, Metro is exploring more Rapid Ride-style stations where riders can tap their ORCA card before boarding, so that riders can board more quickly using all bus doors. Moving buses away from the curb more quickly would help traffic flow better.

Seattle’s Department of Transportation is also looking for data from Uber to determine if the ride sharing service adds or subtracts from congestion.

And finally, the Downtown Seattle Association wants to make outdoor spaces downtown more attractive. Maybe that could entice people to stay downtown longer, helping to even out the surge of commuters that heads for buses and trains just after 5 o’clock.

SDOT’s Scott Kubly says all these changes are on the table, and the One Center City team working on these ideas will roll out more concrete plans for public feedback next month.

If the public buys into these changes, they could reduce the extra congestion by about half.

So, we’d still be up the creek in a leaky canoe. But maybe at least we’d have a paddle.