Planes, Trains & Automobiles: Potential ice storm would impact travel in I-5 corridor

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) says the potential for ice and freezing rain during round two of storms this week has become a big concern along the I-5 corridor.

WSDOT is warning folks who are planning on driving along the corridor Thursday through Friday to be alert, check road conditions, and know before you go—and to consider changing travel plans when the freezing rain and snow starts to fall. 

"It’s so cold outside, whatever type of precipitation falls from the sky, it’s going to freeze immediately on the road," said James Poling, WSDOT Communications.

"We are going to Portland, and then we are heading off to Hawaii for Christmas, and we will be back after New Year's," said Ross and Gay Abbott. Wednesday marked the first part of their holiday journey, starting at their home on Bainbridge Island.

"The hardest part of the trip has been getting off the island," said Ross.

"Yeah, getting off Bainbridge has been hard," said Gay. 

The adventure began Wednesday with the couple calling a friend to help to them navigate the ice-covered roads on Bainbridge Island. That friend volunteered to drive them to the ferry, so they could get to Seattle's King Street Amtrak Station to take the train to Portland.

"We just heard the train is still running so that’s a step in the right direction. And, I think our flight is still good out of Portland," said the Abbotts.

The two said they were aware a potential ice storm is coming Thursday and Friday in both the Seattle and Portland areas, and it could potentially delay their flight out of PDX. They said they are staying at a hotel close to the airport before their flight takes off to Hawaii.

As for train travel, Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari says the Empire Builder—which runs from Chicago to Seattle and Portland—is canceled for the next few days. He says service is suspended through Sunday. Magliari says the cancelations are due to the combination of what's been happening weather-wise in between Seattle and Chicago, and what's forecast to happen over the next two days.

Magliari explained that the single-digit overnight temps and high winds can cause power outages along the tracks. If that happens, he says, a train could be sitting at a crossing with no power. With trains depending heavily on those power systems, if the signal system goes out along the tracks, it will take a long time to get them moving again.

"You can see real time booking details by going to and creating a booking. Put in the to-from in the city section, and you can see how full the train is by percentage," said Olivia Irvin with Amtrak. "Our 24-hour Consolidated National Operations Center (CNOC) continually monitor the latest weather conditions 24/7, assessing the state of the railroad and related infrastructure in real-time and coordinating any necessary response, with assistance from a private weather forecasting firm."

When it comes to driving, James Poling with WSDOT says if flexibility allows, consider delaying travel until weather improves through Friday. He says, because we are looking at a freezing rain scenario, the National Weather Service has been keeping an eye on the Columbia River Gorge and the I-5 corridor.

"It’s going to be a region-wide event, it looks it’s just a matter of who gets hit harder with freezing precipitation," said Poling. "If a lot of people try to get to family and friends in Portland, or on the east side of the state Friday, there could be a lot of trouble. It's going to be a bad scenario."

Poling suggests that any chance that motorists can change their travel plans to a later date are encouraged to do so.

"Plan for changing conditions and scenarios where the roads will be really slick at any given notice," said Poling.

WSDOT says it's also a good idea to remember that microclimates can cause road conditions to change quickly, and secondary roads may not be as clear as main routes.

Meantime, Sea-Tac Airport has been seeing hundreds of delays this week, on top of dozens of cancelations.

"Be patient, I think it’s going to be an interesting couple of days," said Tina Nelson, a traveler from Palm Springs.

Nelson flew into Paine Field Airport this week and Wednesday was heading to Vancouver, Washington via Amtrak.

RELATED: Icy roads in Snohomish County still need to be plowed

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"I had some rescheduling of trains because of weather in the Midwest, so I got to come down and stay at the Mayflower last night instead of trying to get down here today," said Nelson. "I think if you have any inbound trains coming from the east you’ve got problems, and I don’t even want to know what the airports are like."

She says it's unfortunate the icy weather is coming right before the holidays, but she says her family in Vancouver is prepared to hunker down.

"We’ve already talked about alternative plans if we need to and the food is all in the refrigerator and there’s a bottle of wine with my name on it," said Nelson.