Prepare for gridlock as motorists head to see eclipse

In parts of state, traffic could resemble what’s seen during large winter storms

Washington State Department of Transportation video

Washington and many other states are bracing for unprecedented traffic problems on the days surrounding the Aug. 21 total eclipse.

The last time a total solar eclipse shadowed the lower forty-eight was in 1979, when its path of totality crossed over the state, giving many Washingtonians a chance to witness the kind of eclipse seen from Earth once every 18 months. A total eclipse won’t be visible from the West Coast again until 2045, when it will cross northern California.

A total solar eclipse photographed from France in 1999. (Luc Viatour/https://Lucnix.be)

This month, Washington will be north of the eclipse’s path of totality, which will span from Oregon to South Carolina. People in Washington will see only the moon partially covering the sun — unless they head south.

There are an estimated 5.5 million drivers in Washington, and no sure way to predict how many of them will drive to see the total eclipse. What officials do know is that hotels, campgrounds and other types of lodging along the path of totality were booked months — and sometimes years — in advance.

Officials also assume that people who couldn’t secure lodging for the eclipse will drive into the path of totality on the morning of Monday, Aug. 21. And once the eclipse is done, return traffic is expected to be heavy through Tuesday.

In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown has authorized the National Guard to help manage the expected surge of up to 1 million tourists. Gov. Jay Inslee is asking Washington residents driving south to plan ahead and use caution.

“A total solar eclipse is no doubt a special astronomical phenomenon that many people will want to enjoy,” Inslee said. “Washingtonians can help ensure that everyone has a safe and memorable experience by giving themselves an abundance of travel time before and after the eclipse, exiting the highway before stopping to watch the eclipse and wearing eye protection specifically designed for eclipse viewing.”

The eclipse will reach totality (full coverage of the sun) in Oregon between 10:15 and 10:25 a.m. On the west side of the state, it will cover a strip of land south of Portland and north of Eugene; on Oregon’s east side, its path will include Baker City and parts of the Malheur National Forest.

An increase in traffic is expected Aug. 21 as Washingtonians travel to Oregon to view the total solar eclipse and then return home. This is expected to create traffic problems on the highways between Washington and Oregon, including the Interstate 5 bridge, shown here. Traffic could impact other parts of Washington state as well. (Washington State Department of Transportation photo)

The Washington State Department of Transportation is telling motorists to prepare for significant traffic delays similar to those encountered during a large winter storm. Or imagine Seattle traffic after a Seahawks game, on top of traffic backed up from a road-construction project.

“We want everyone to be prepared for additional traffic both before and after the eclipse, whether you’re traveling to the path of totality or going about your daily travels,” Washington State Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar said. “Most importantly, we want people informed so we can all travel and return home safely.”

WSDOT also warns that dry conditions and more traffic could heighten wildfire danger and slow emergency responders trying to get to a wildfire.

Whether you’re driving to the path of totality, or just driving to work that day, here’s what you need to know:

Eclipse watchers

Leave early and prepare for the possibility that you might be spending several hours in your vehicle.

The path of totality for the 2017 eclipse on Aug. 21. (NASA image)

Bring supplies with you, including food and water and other essential items. Stores could run low on supplies and congestion could mean your travel takes longer than expected.

Keep your vehicle gassed up throughout your travels and don’t let the gauge get too close to empty in case you can’t quickly get to a gas station.

Identify a safe place to park and watch the eclipse ahead of time. There’s sure to be lots of traffic the morning of the 21st, and you don’t want to rush to find a spot.

And don’t forget your protective eyewear. Regular sunglasses won’t cut it for eclipse viewing; special glasses are required. Learn more on NASA’s eclipse safety page.

Commuters

If you are commuting to work Aug. 21, and especially if you live near the Oregon border, consider delaying your start and stop times, altering your drive plans or allowing extra time to get to work.

Oregon-Washington border roads where heavy traffic is expected are Interstates 5 and 205 between Vancouver and Portland; state Route 14 between I-5 and I-205 and from Skamania County to the Bridge of the Gods; U.S. Routes 97 and 197 from Klickitat County to Oregon; SR 433 from Longview to Rainier; SR 409 between Cathlamet and Westport (connected by the Wahkiakum County Ferry); U.S. 101 from Washington to Astoria; and SR 4 between Longview and Long Beach.

It’s possible all parts of Washington could see eclipse traffic both before and after the event. For a list of traffic challenges in other state regions that day, check the WSDOT travel alerts page.

If you are driving in Washington during the partial eclipse, please find a safe place to stop if you want to observe the moon obscure part of the sun. Do not stop on roadways or pull onto shoulders — those need to remain open for emergency responders.

If you don’t care to see the total eclipse and don’t need to commute on Aug. 21, avoid the highways.

Traffic tools

Stay up to speed on traffic conditions with WSDOT’s travel tools, including the WSDOT app, Twitter accounts, WSDOT Facebook page and travel alerts. More tips about eclipse travel are available at the WSDOT blog.