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Sunday, June 2, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bumper to Bumper

The story behind the gridlock

Seattle Times staff reporter

Every weekday morning some 1.3 million people get in their cars in the Puget Sound area and drive to work. All together they'll commute more than 500,000 hours each morning, traveling 14 million miles, enough to circle the globe 600 times.

So it's no surprise that we have one of the worst traffic messes in the nation. And while it's generated sympathy, solutions have been hard to come by.

A new light-rail system or monorail are both years away, and efforts to get commuters to abandon their cars in favor of buses have largely gone unheeded. In the past 10 years the number of those who take Metro or other public transit to work has increased only 1 percent throughout the region. During the same period the number of commuters who drive alone to work has increased in all but Kitsap and Pierce counties.

Beginning today, The Times is inaugurating Bumper to Bumper, a column dedicated to helping readers cope with traffic. We'll try to answer your questions, offer insight into the nuances of managing traffic and, we hope, make your commute a little easier.

Questions or comments? Phone us at 206-464-2054 or send an e-mail to bumper@seattletimes.com. You can also use snail mail, addressing your letters to Bumper to Bumper, The Seattle Times newsroom, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.

Here are a couple of questions that have been bugging us.

Why is Interstate 5 so tied up southbound on weekend afternoons?

There are many reasons, says Dave McCormick, manager of the Traffic System Management Center for the state Department of Transportation. But don't expect relief.

A lot of weekend travel is destined to downtown Seattle, whether it be for Mariners games, shopping or other activities

Another problem is the express lanes, which run southbound on Saturday and Sunday mornings and switch to northbound at noon, creating a bottleneck near Northgate.

Compounding the problem, particularly on sunny days, is the tunnel under the Convention Center. With merging traffic, narrower lanes and the transition from light into darkness, people hesitate, McCormick said. Even slowing down a little aggravates the backup miles away.

How to fix it?

"With the freeway in its existing configuration, there's not a lot of good alternatives," McCormick said. "Right now there is no significant roadway improvement envisioned for I-5 that will increase its capacity, and this is especially frustrating on weekends. People out with their families want to get somewhere and are not expecting congestion."

The state tried to run the express lanes southbound only, but that tied up northbound traffic for miles south of Boeing Field and also created northbound bottlenecks at the Highway 520 interchange.

Another problem, McCormick said, is there's no room on the Ship Canal Bridge to create a carpool lane to tie into the HOV lane south of Mercer Street.

Why does the downtown bus tunnel close so early, particularly during Mariners games?

Blame Tim Eyman, says Metro. When the bus tunnel started operating in September 1990, it stayed open only until 7 each weekday night. But in June 1998, with help from the Mariners and the Seattle Seahawks, the tunnel extended its hours until 11 p.m.

But that all changed in February 2000, after voters approved Initiative 695 in 1999, the measure sponsored by tax crusader Eyman that scrapped the 2.2 percent motor-vehicle excise tax.

Now the tunnel's weekday closure is back to 7 p.m. While Metro says there are no plans to again extend the tunnel hours, it said there are many dedicated Mariners buses to Safeco Field that fans can ride.

(Current tunnel hours on Saturdays are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; the tunnel has always been closed on Sundays.)

Bumper crop

Two new laws passed by the 2002 Legislature go into effect June 13. Break either and you're looking at a fine.

• "Click it or ticket" allows police to stop your car and issue a ticket if anyone in the car is not wearing a seat belt. In the past the ticket could be issued only after a "secondary" stop, that is, after your car was stopped for another reason. After June 13, police and troopers can stop a car solely for a seat-belt violation.

The new law makes Washington the 18th state in the country with a primary seat-belt law, but even without it Washington motorists are likely to buckle up. The average seat-belt-use rate in the state is 83.5 percent, said the State Patrol, far above the national average of 73 percent.

• "Steer it, clear it" requires drivers in a collision involving no injuries to move their cars off the roadway to an exit ramp or cross street as soon as possible or face a fine.

The law was passed by the Legislature in the last session, making Washington the 17th state in the country with a similar law. Supporters say the law will not only help ease congestion — conventional wisdom says every minute of delay causes up to 10 minutes of backup — it will help prevent secondary crashes involving the stalled vehicles.

John O'Laughlin, a former state trooper who now is an expert in incident response, said it was estimated that, nationally, 18 percent of fatal freeway crashes are secondary to another incident. Further, he said, 75 percent of the accidents on congested freeways are non-injury.

To contact Bumper to Bumper, e-mail us at bumper@seattletimes.com or call Susan Gilmore at 206-464-2054.

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