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Weather: Danger for homeless, a moderate test of road readiness

Seattle's city streets seemed to carry traffic fairly well Monday morning. But there were some very long evening commutes.

Even Monday's afternoon commute wasn't a severe test of Seattle readiness for dealing with the transportation aspects of a snow emergecny. But it was certainly more difficult than the morning.

By evening, The Seattle Times proclaimed the afternoon commute a "fiasco," and said the falling temperatures had overwhelmed even the brine solution put on some streets in advance to avoid or retard freezing. Media members were on particularly high alert, since a 2008 snowstorm and what most viewed as a failed response helped lead to then-Mayor Greg Nickels' election defeat. And new Mayor Mike McGinn had promised to gear up for the snow.

Still at least to someone like me who had more than a three-hour bus commute from Pioneer Square home to Ballard, the city seemed to do well enough to make the ride home manageable, or at least barely so. And there were the questions I asked myself a number of times: Should I have just been smart enough to stay home? And what do I really expect?

Still, the commute will receive a more general assessment as people discuss their experiences.

At least Metro Transit and other regional agencies kept the buses running, as far as I could tell. And the city was treating the event as an emergency, which it most certainly is, especially for homeless people. The city announced it was opening three shelters from the cold, with doors opening at various times between 8 and 9 p.m.

Traffic in at least parts of downtown came to virtual gridlock during the afternoon rush hour. People seemed to be waiting for long periods of time at bus stops, but that wasn't particularly surprising for the traffic and weather conditions. 

When I finally caught a bus on First Avenue S. after a fruitless (perhaps foolish) 35 minutes of waiting on Fourth for a less frequent but more convenient route, it took an hour and 25 minutes to go from S. Jackson Street to Denny. But First is given to horrible tie-ups. One can certainly wonder why the city never seems to have cops directing traffic in bad weather. But that's an issue that could have been raised in the past, too.

(By way of perspective, I should note that I was part of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial during the 2008 storm, and our editorials questioning how much the city could do to keep traffic moving in the face of a surprising series of weather events were roundly mocked. So maybe I'm giving the McGinn administration leeway that others won't.)

Monday morning, with less challenging conditions, area drivers still slowed to a virtual halt on some of the key routes this morning. Looking at traffic cams and TV feeds, it wasn't clear if the conditions were simply marginal in a few spots on freeways and Highway 99, or perhaps Seattle drivers were just exhibiting their famously marginal snow driving skills. In Tacoma, a Pierce Transit bus on the University of Washington campus there overturned, sending 10 people to the hospital with injuries that weren't life-threatening, according to The Seattle Times.

The new McGinn administration, which came into office at least in part because of difficulties with snow response in 2008, while Greg Nickels was mayor, has promised to be on top of things. Street crews geared up in advance the streets. And Metro buses were running with chains.

In the easier-to-predict environment of cyberspace, the city did a nice job of putting links to all sorts of snow-emergency information together in one place.

Late this morning, the state Department of Transportation issued a plea for drivers to delay holiday travel until Tuesday or Wednesday if at all possible.

Still, as the long evening commute seemed to underline, there are very real limits to the ability of anyone to make a city function well during even a moderately severe weather event. Moving around was tough going, even with snowfall amounts far below anything seen in late 2008. And the streets had to be much more daunting, and dangerous, for those without a warm house waiting for them.


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