Northwest News

No quick relief from the slog I-5 has become in Tacoma

It’s become a daily routine on Interstate 5: Hit the brakes and inch past downtown Tacoma at a crawl.

Lately, the slog has been getting worse, as heavy earth-moving equipment and cranes line the freeway.

What are state Department of Transportation workers doing, and what will we have when they’re done?

We talked to Claudia Bingham Baker, communications manager for the Transportation Department’s Olympic Region, to find out.

Q: Traffic is terrible every day on I-5 going through Tacoma. What’s going on?

A: There’s too much traffic for the current highway capacity.

Q: Let me put it this way: Could construction have anything to do with it?

A: Construction, collisions, congestion — all of them play a role.

In Tacoma, we’re working on building two large projects on I-5 to add HOV lanes.

To accommodate the wider capacity of the highway, though, we have to do a whole bunch of preparatory work before the lanes are built and open to traffic — like demolishing and rebuilding bridges, building retaining walls, installing drainage and other work.

Q: So what's happening now is in preparation for adding HOV lanes. How many lanes will you add, and where will they start and finish?

A: One project will build HOV lanes between M Street and Portland Avenue. We have a second project to the north that will continue the HOV lanes from Portland Avenue to the Port of Tacoma Road, and then connect them into existing HOV lanes in north Pierce County and beyond.

Q: Are they happening simultaneously? What's involved in the project between M Street and Portland?

A: They are being worked on simultaneously. The M Street to Portland project began about six months earlier than the Portland Avenue to Port of Tacoma project. Both will take three years to build, so the former project will finish first.

It’s noteworthy that the HOV lanes built in that project won’t open to traffic until the project to the north is complete.

Both projects are complex, and both require a tremendous amount of traffic control. We have to build new lanes while keeping traffic moving, so that involves a lot of traffic shifts.

In the M Street to Portland project, we’ll demolish and rebuild the Pacific Avenue and McKinley Way overpasses and build a new bridge over Interstate 705. We’ll also remove and rebuild all of the mainline lanes of I-5 within the project limits. The concrete there now is old – it dates from the 1960s – and it needs to be replaced.

Q: What’s involved in the Portland Avenue to Port of Tacoma segment?

A: In that project, we’ll build a new bridge over the Puyallup River in addition to widening I-5 before and after the bridge. There’s a lot of work associated with that, but the new bridge is the highlight.

The new bridge will be built to current seismic codes; it will be wider than the existing northbound I-5 bridge over the river, and it’ll have fewer piers in the water, which is good for fish. It’ll also be in a straighter alignment than the current bridge.

Q: What will happen to the old bridge?

A: It’ll be demolished. Not right away, but it will eventually come down.

Q: So when both projects are finished, in three years, we’ll have northbound HOV lanes all the way through Tacoma and across the river on a new bridge, connecting with existing northbound HOV lanes to Seattle?

A: That’s right, in the northbound direction. Southbound, it will take a little longer. We’re looking at options to accommodate a southbound HOV lane across the Puyallup River. We may build a new southbound bridge, or we may be able to reuse the existing southbound bridge to provide HOV lanes.

Q: What’s all this costing and how is it being funded?

A: Both I-5 projects are funded with Transportation Partnership Act funds, which are state revenues generated from the last gas tax increase, back in 2005. The M Street to Portland project is costing $161 million; the Portland Avenue to Port of Tacoma Road project will cost $261 million.

Q: Do HOV lanes really work? Why not just add two additional lanes of general traffic instead of restricted lanes?

A: That’s a question we’re asked frequently. We know HOV lanes work well, especially for moving people. We also know we don’t have the resources to build enough general purpose lanes to solve our congestion problem.

So, instead, we’re focusing on providing people a choice. They can share the ride and use HOV lanes, or they can drive alone. When the HOV lanes open, drivers in all the lanes will win. Every HOV car that moves into an HOV lanes reduces traffic in the general purpose lanes.

HOV lanes also provide quick access for emergency response vehicles and help transit keep reliable schedules.

Q: It seems like you hardly ever see anybody in them. It can be annoying when traffic is stopped in the general purpose lanes and the HOV lanes are wide open and empty.

A: Remember that we’re still in the process of building the system. Each project we complete adds another piece to the puzzle, which includes all the HOV lanes on state Route 16, the Nalley Valley improvements and several precursor projects on I-5, in addition to the current construction.

As the HOV system grows, it provides drivers more of an incentive to share the ride.

That incentive extends to traffic operations, too. We want the HOV lanes to be free flowing and not congested. Our goal is for HOV lanes to provide drivers a means to travel at least 45 miles per hour 90 percent of the time.

Q: Is there a date in the foreseeable future when people will be able to sail right through Tacoma on the freeway without getting jammed up in traffic?

A: It depends on how drivers choose to get around in the future. We’re trying to provide people options to just driving alone.

Back in the day, we were the Department of Highways. Not anymore. As the Department of Transportation, we’re involved in improving and funding all sorts of transportation modes, including bicycling, rail, HOV, transit, et cetera.

We need to help support and facilitate all of those modes working together to meet the state’s transportation needs.