Mayor, police stand by freeway closure that led to gridlock

SEATTLE -- No apologies, just regrets from a Seattle Police Department spokesman Wednesday after commuters spent more than five hours in a city-wide traffic jam the previous afternoon.

"We're not going to apologize for doing our job. We have a responsibility to do each investigation, and really do right by those involved," said Sgt. Sean Whitcomb, a spokesman for the department. "Do we regret the fact that people are inconvenienced? Absolutely. But ultimately it's up to the detectives to get that investigation done quickly and thoroughly."

Hundreds of drivers - including the mayor - were stuck in a massive, five-hour traffic jam Tuesday that stretched from South Seattle to Ballard. Detectives investigating a two-car crash at East Marginal Way and S. Nevada Street made the call to shut down Highway 99, one of the city's two freeways. Three people were transported to the hospital with non life-threatening injuries, but the accident may lead to felony charges, police said. The accident happened at 1:45 p.m. but the road didn't reopen until about 7:30.

"It's part of living in any city. If there was an earthquake, the same sort of situation would happen," Mayor Ed Murray said Wednesday. "I don't want the police not to make a public safety call because people are going to be frustrated in traffic. The most important thing is to make sure people are safe."

Despite the fact that the accident happened on a city street and shut down a state highway, the decision to close the roads came from the police department, said Rick Sheridan, a spokesman for the Seattle Department of Transportation.

A Seattle Mariners game near the accident Tuesday night did not help the situation, officials said.

"Overheated, kind of screwed," said stranded driver Kylee Schmuck. Her car stalled on Lower Queen Anne in the heart of the traffic jam Tuesday. "I started overheating around 4:45, (and then) broke down," she said.

Ross Albrechtson was sitting in an Uber - where he pays by the distance, and by the minute - when he realized it was more efficient to walk.

"It was about 5:06, and the next time I looked at the clock, it was 5:26. I'd gone about a quarter of a mile," Albrechtson said. "I started to realize that I was able to walk faster than traffic was moving."

Both the mayor's office and the police department say they will be looking into Tuesday's response to see what might be done better in the future.

"The reality is these types of closures take four hours on average and there's never a convenient time for us to be doing it," Whitcomb said. "When you've got a late afternoon collision on a major thoroughfare, odds are, it's going to impact traffic."