WSDOT completes I-90 work through MI amid social media complaints from drivers during closures

Interstate 90 closures through Mercer Island due to roadwork were finally completed ahead of schedule by Sunday afternoon, but it was a weekend of nightmare traffic and signage confusion, according to infuriated drivers who voiced their concerns on social media.

In order for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT)’s crews to replace a critical expansion joint, westbound I-90 was scheduled to be completely closed along a section of the Island, according to a project report, which added that drivers could access open lanes toward Seattle using the West Mercer Way onramp from 10 a.m. Friday through 5 a.m. Monday.

Because of the extreme traffic that began on Friday afternoon, the city and WSDOT entered into discussions and agreed to shutter the West Mercer Way onramp just after noon on Saturday, according to Tom Pearce, spokesperson for WSDOT.

The work — which the city and WSDOT announced to citizens well ahead of time — was completed about 13 hours earlier than scheduled and all lanes were reopened, Pearce said.

“We’re glad this work was finished ahead of schedule and will continue to share any additional updates as they are made available,” the city wrote on Facebook on Sunday afternoon.

At one point during the weekend, the city wrote the following Facebook note as staff was actively working with WSDOT and Washington State Patrol for solutions and managing emergency services: “We understand the immense frustration and impact this closure has caused. We appreciate our community’s resilience and are doing everything we can to assist — the City and the Mercer Island Police Department will continue sharing updates as they’re available.”

WSDOT updated its plans and signage for drivers as the weekend rolled out, including closing all westbound lanes beginning at Island Crest Way in order to eliminate congestion caused by drivers trying to access Seattle by detouring around the closure on Island roadways, according to the city.

According to Pearce, WSDOT began the closure on Friday morning because it determined that about 50 to 60 hours of work would be required to complete the job. With such major projects, workers don’t know what they will encounter until they begin digging in, so they allotted some extra time.

Pearce added that the work went smoothly and they didn’t need the additional time.

“It was a long weekend,” Pearce said. “We continued our messaging throughout the weekend, we watched our social media on Friday night very closely. We saw huge numbers of comments on there, we were working with the city on Friday night and then again Saturday morning to get everything organized.”

WSDOT heard from copious people that they knew about the closures, said Pearce, adding that despite the heads up and alternate routes available, there was still immense traffic and delays.

“We do the best we can and we try to learn from it as well. This has got some very valuable lessons, not only for future projects on I-90 and Mercer Island, but just around the region. We’re going to have to look very carefully at what the closures are,” he said.

One Facebook user said it was a poor decision for WSDOT “to block Island residents’ access for family emergencies.”

A fellow Facebook poster said it took them seven hours and 40 minutes to drive from Kirkland to Mercer Island on Friday, and another person said that signage was nonexistent on one section of a roadway for drivers wishing to travel to Seattle.

Another Facebooker said they witnessed some drivers abandoning their cars one night and walking off the highway into the bike path as little kids were on the loose. As people exited the interstate to drive through the Island on detours, some were seen running stop signs and lights, according to one person, as another noted that the closures shouldn’t have occurred on a weekend with Husky and Seahawk home football games.

“We understand all of these closures are going to create a lot of challenges for people who rely on I-90,” said WSDOT Project Engineer Shawn Wendt in a press release. “However, we need to replace the worn-out pavement and expansion joint before we get to another winter. We are doing this now because it took time to get contractors and materials in place.”

Other concerns that drivers unleashed via social media posts included lack of GPS apps coordination, not enough police presence in several communities, suggestions that the Washington State Transporation Commission (WSTC) waive tolls on the State Route 520 Bridge, and WSDOT scheduling the closures during the Jewish New Year festival, Rosh Hashanah, during which people drive to synagogues and friend’s and family’s homes to gather for the celebration.

On the police patrol front, the city posted during the closures that its department was working to receive additional support from the Washington State Patrol (WSP). Ironically, one of the city’s Facebook posts on Sept. 23 began with, “Happy Friday, folks!”

WSTC Executive Director Reema Griffith said the commission is not currently considering implementing temporary toll suspensions as it can’t expeditiously temporarily suspend or change toll rates or policies.

“The commission has legal requirements and financial commitments to meet on the SR 520 Bridge, that rely on tolls being regularly collected as planned,” Griffith said. “Tolling on 520 is also required by law to manage congestion on the bridge, in addition to collecting revenues. With this in mind, suspending tolls during the I-90 closures, with additional traffic moving from I-90 to 520, would be counter to the requirement that tolls be used to manage congestion.”

Also on the legal requirement front regarding rate setting, the commission can only make that decision following a three- to fourth-month public input and review process.

Mercer Island City Manager Jessi Bon said the closure was deeply stressful for thousands of drivers who rely on I-90 to access the Island. She said the city will continue its collaboration with WSDOT, the WSP and myriad other regional partners in the road closure and emergency response planning realms to ensure that the chaotic situation doesn’t happen again. The city appreciates WSDOT’s commitment to this future scenario and WSP’s recognition that more public safety resources are needed during such an enormous event.

“This weekend’s failures emphasize just how consequential these closures can be, and highlight the need for better scheduling, improved signage, contingency plans, additional public safety resources, and clarity for the public,” Bon said. “Ultimately, it’s about safety — heavy traffic is inconvenient, but gridlocked roads and stranded vehicles should not result from a project like this.”

Other I-90 partial closures through Mercer Island occurred from Sept. 16-19 and Sept. 22-23.