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As crews work to disentangle train, traffic nightmares continue for Thurston County

Monday’s Amtrak derailment that closed southbound I-5 near DuPont, sent commuters in search of alternate routes in the Yelm area. Here, traffic is backed up between Eatonville and McKenna on Tuesday.
Monday’s Amtrak derailment that closed southbound I-5 near DuPont, sent commuters in search of alternate routes in the Yelm area. Here, traffic is backed up between Eatonville and McKenna on Tuesday. lisalpemberton@theolympian.com

The continued closure of southbound Interstate 5 near DuPont following Monday’s deadly train derailment made life difficult for South Sound commuters Tuesday, with drivers enduring hourslong delays on all alternate routes.

Looking ahead, the bad news is: State Transportation Department spokesman Travis Phelps says Interstate 5 could be shut down for several days as officials finish the investigation at the scene. Authorities started to move derailed train cars on Tuesday, loading them onto trucks and taking them to a secure facility as the National Transportation Safety Board investigated.

But the good news is: Some Thurston County businesses along alternate routes saw a lot more customers, and stepped up to help, providing restrooms and refreshments.

It took commuters sometimes hours longer than usual to get to work Tuesday, but many stayed home and avoided traffic altogether.

It could be the same story for much of this week.

“I want to stress that I-5 still could be closed for several days,” Travis Phelps, a state Department of Transportation spokesman, said at a Tuesday morning press conference.

About 60,000 drivers use that area of southbound I-5 each day, according to WSDOT. Instead, drivers were told to use Route 16 west from Tacoma to Route 3 south toward Shelton to U.S. 101 south toward Olympia to I-5; another option was to use Route 512 east to Route 7 south.

But those routes quickly backed up. WSDOT reported heavy traffic on Route 507 as drivers tried to make their way around the scene. By 10:30 a.m., there was a 14-mile backup on southbound Route 507 going into Yelm, and the Route 16 detour was considered the faster route.

“All these routes are going to be jam-packed,” Phelps said. “None of these routes can handle the capacity of I-5.”

Northbound traffic on I-5 moved slowly at Mounts Roads on Tuesday where crews were working to clear the scene, a tedious process slowed by the rain.

The Mounts Road gate onto Joint Base Lewis-McChord was closed Tuesday morning for inbound traffic. There was a detour from I-5 onto Center Drive through JBLM for local traffic only.

On The Olympian’s Facebook page, one man wrote he planned to work from home Tuesday after it took him nearly seven hours to get from Gig Harbor to Lacey on Monday.

Another woman wrote she had planned to take an Amtrak train to Seattle on Friday.

“I'm kind of (skittish) to ride. What safety precautions are they taking for other trains?” said Veronica Hughes of Centralia.

After Hughes learned that the trains running between Centennial Station near Lacey and Tacoma plan to use the previous waterfront route, she felt a little more comfortable. Hughes plans to take the train to Seattle, then fly to Alaska to see a grandson.

BUSINESSES, WORKERS AFFECTED

The I-5 traffic rerouted through the Yelm area, resulted in some exceedingly long wait times Monday and Tuesday. Some businesses offered to help.

Northwest Chevrolet in McKenna, which sits on one of the alternate routes, announced via Facebook that they were providing free coffee, water and cookies, as well as bathrooms for motorists, said Nate Schilling, sales manager.

Schilling said some drivers had been sitting in traffic for seven hours. He also got text messages from customers Monday night, asking if they were still open. By 9 p.m. Monday, though, the business had closed.

The dealership employs about 40 people and several of them were unable to come to work Tuesday, he said.

Main Street Cookie Company in Rainier was busy Monday, ranging from steady to swamped with customers due to the increased traffic, owner Joycelyn Zambutto said. She, too, had heard from drivers who said they had spent hours in traffic to travel relatively short distances.

Truck drivers stopped by Tuesday morning to load up on baked goods, such as cookies, rolls and scones, she said. By late Tuesday, customer activity had slowed, possibly because of the storm and heavy rain, Zambutto said.

At Rhonda’s Coffee House in Yelm, barista Kimy Hess said business slowed Tuesday from Monday, likely because more people decided to stay home to avoid traffic. Monday was a different story, she said. Those she knows in Roy, her hometown, told her that some drivers spent four-and-a-half hours to travel as little as eight or 10 miles.

Traffic on Monday was backed up so long between Eatonville and McKenna that Hess said she saw a truck driver who had fallen asleep, his face pressed up against the driver’s side window.

STATE WORKERS

The state Department of Social and Health Services, the largest state agency with about 19,000 workers statewide, provided a variety of options to employees affected by the train derailment, said spokeswoman Mindy Chambers.

The agency has more than 600 workers that live in Pierce and King counties who may have been affected by the derailment.

On Monday and Tuesday, workers could do the following: Stay home and telecommute, work from another DSHS location if it was job appropriate, or used accrued leave, she said.

Adequate staff was ensured at state hospitals, Chambers said.

AMTRAK UPDATES

Amtrak announced the following on its website about local service: Until further notice, all Cascades and Coast Starlight Service trains will detour between Olympia-Lacey and Tacoma, operating out of the original Tacoma Station located at 1001 Puyallup Avenue, Tacoma, WA 98421.

Also, trains 505 and 508, which were scheduled to operate as through service between Eugene and Seattle, will now operate only between Seattle and Portland.

Reporter Stacia Glenn contributed to this report.

Abby Spegman: 360-704-6869, @AbbySpegman

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