A week and a half left before new SR 99 tunnel opens up

SEATTLE - When the new SR 99 tunnel opens it will be a new normal for drivers.

It will also create some confusion as people get used to the new traffic patterns. On Wednesday, WSDOT confirmed that things are moving on schedule when it comes to the tunnel project and they expect to open the new tunnel on the morning of Feb. 4.

The labor that it takes to open up the largest double deck highway of its kind in the county is no easy feat.

“The guys have been diligent to get the work done they are working really, really hard,” David Sowers of WSDOT said.

The inside of the tunnel is mostly done, but crews are busy focusing on the outside, connecting Seattle arteries to the new tunnel.

“My biggest fear has always been the weather wouldn’t cooperate, but by and large the last week and half has been pretty decent,” Sowers said.

That means drivers have about another week and half to get ready for the new route.

“Different on and off points, different ramps it’s probably going to be confusing to people,” Sowers said.

The viaduct carried 90,000 vehicles every day with several exits into downtown. But the 2 mile tunnel will only have two openings: one near the Space needle,  the other near the stadiums.

“I don’t think there will be 90,000 vehicles going into the tunnel. Part of it is that there will be no midtown stop, the tunnel won’t need to take 90,000 vehicles” Sowers said.

It’s unclear how many people will take the tunnel and traffic experts cannot say for sure where the new chokepoints will be, but one area that got our attention is the North end of the tunnel near the Space Needle.

Drivers who leave the tunnel and take Republican will come to an intersection where it branches off in 3 different ways. Drivers can turn left to go to Mercer and I-5, or they can turn right onto Dexter to head into downtown or go straight for South Lake Union.

We asked WSDOT about the area being a possible chokepoint backing up the tunnel.

“We certainly don’t want bottlenecks in that interchange backing up the tunnel that creates problems for folks inside the tunnel,” Sowers said.

WSDOT says they will be working with SDOT on signal times to keep traffic moving at that intersection.

“That first couple of weeks after the tunnel opens we are going to be making lots and lots of adjustments and so if it’s not perfect the first day, that first week just hang tough,” Heather Marx of SDOT said.

Drivers say they hope the tunnel will be a good addition to Seattle’s infrastructure.

“I’ve been here for two years and everything seems to bottleneck,” Scott Haberman said.

Haberman says he plans to use the tunnel but other drivers say once the state starts tolling the new tunnel they will avoid i.

“I am pretty sure that they won’t want to pay where they need to go,” commuter Angel Sarmiento said.

WSDOT is expecting to start tolling the tunnel sometime this summer.