Wait for ramp means summer of discontent for W. Seattle

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One more summer of frustration lies ahead for drivers heading into West Seattle, because the new ramp from First Avenue South to the West Seattle Bridge won’t be ready for traffic until early September.

City officials used to say the ramp would open in late 2011. The job has been hindered by a late start, weather and the complexity of rebuilding a nearby road deck while traffic whizzes by.

The ramp is one stage of the Spokane Street Viaduct widening, initially scheduled to be done in July 2012. The city is only two months behind on a very complicated project, said Stuart Goldsmith, project director for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).

The entire corridor is likely to be completed Sept. 7, according to the latest chart by contractor PCL.

Drivers seethed last year when the unfinished First Avenue ramp caused the city’s worst choke point during the “Viadoom” construction closure of Highway 99, causing traffic jams of more than an hour.

Until the up-ramp is finished, commuters leaving Sodo remain hostage to a surface route where freight trains, port trucks and drawbridge openings can block the road home.

“We would love to see it completed,” said Dave Montoure, chairman of the West Seattle Chamber of Commerce. In particular, he hears from residents who work at Starbucks Center and “get trapped by trains from time to time.”

New steel girders were recently hoisted into place after a delay in obtaining them from a supplier. But even if the westbound ramp were completely paved by now, it couldn’t be used until the entire $168 million Spokane Street Viaduct expansion is done, “most likely late in the summer,” says a mailing from the SDOT.

This is because it would be too dangerous for traffic to merge into what’s currently a narrow, four-lane detour route along one edge of Spokane Street, already so tight that it’s posted with a widely ignored 25-mph speed limit.

Much-used corridor

The West Seattle Bridge carries about 101,000 vehicles per weekday, and 70,000 use the Spokane Street Viaduct.

During the administration of former Mayor Greg Nickels, voters approved partial funding to rebuild Spokane Street in the 2006 “Bridging the Gap” property-tax levy. By 2008, the City Council approved a plan that called for the widening by 2010.

Then-SDOT Director Grace Crunican, in particular, discussed her goal of finishing in time to give commuters an escape valve by 2012, which was Gov. Chris Gregoire’s announced deadline to tear down the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The city even sent public mailings with a 2011 completion date.

That was before a bidder challenged the contract award. The project was rebid in September 2009, based on an expected completion by July 2012.

The next year, a new loop ramp to Fourth Avenue South was finished three months early, in August 2010, providing a new path to Costco and downtown.

At that point the city still said the First Avenue South ramp would be done in 2011. Early in the work, part of the ramp had to be broken apart and rebuilt due to a measuring error, but that fix took only a few days.

Meanwhile, the state accelerated its Highway 99 work in Sodo and set a nine-day construction closure for October 2011. SDOT tried to get the First Avenue ramp done by then, but PCL couldn’t get the girders in time.

“There’s an urban myth that the First Avenue South improvements were supposed to be completed before the nine-day closure,” said spokesman Rick Sheridan. (The closure known as “Viadoom” ended up lasting only seven days.)

Even if the ramp up to the high bridge had been opened to traffic last fall, it would have closed again this spring for safety because of tight space atop Spokane Street, Sheridan said.

Officials point to challenges including wet weather, Highway 99 road closures, and a three-week change order to improve the project by laying concrete instead of weaker blacktop for the East Marginal Way South truck route.

Rare compliment

Mike Peringer, president of the Sodo Business Association, said city transportation staff members and police have done a particularly good job at keeping north-south traffic flowing on First and Fourth avenues south through intersections in the construction zone.

“You don’t hear people say nice things about city transportation too much, but from the very beginning, they kept us informed,” he said.

On May 22 or 23, the old eastbound offramp down to First Avenue South will be closed to avoid conflicts with nearby repaving, while the Fourth Avenue South loop ramp reopens after a monthlong closure. Traffic shifts will happen throughout the summer.

The final Spokane Street will be earthquake resistant and provide two traffic lanes, a merge-exit lane and a shoulder in each direction.

Work is 90 percent done.

Goldsmith said Friday he recently asked PCL if its workers could speed up the job by paving 24 hours a day. “Even for money, they won’t change it,” he said. Among other reasons, concrete needs a fixed time to cure.

“The one way we could have gone faster on this project would be to shut Spokane Street down, and that would be unacceptable to West Seattle,” he said.

If SDOT avoids further delay, the job will be finished in time for the area’s next big traffic convulsion — when Metro reshuffles its entire Westside bus network on Sept. 29 and adds a new west-east Route 50 to the traffic party in Sodo.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @mikelindblom.

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