Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Shift to the right, shift to the left, straight to the finish

Lots of movement coming up on I-5 project in Tacoma

By Nick VinZant and Cara Mitchell

The Macarena, the Electric Slide, the Chicken Dance; every good dance craze has steps we can all follow. We are about to go through the same thing with some travel lane shifts on Interstate 5.

Over the next year, design-build contractor Atkinson Construction will temporarily relocate lanes along I-5 near Portland Avenue in Tacoma. The shifts will keep people moving around our work zones while we finish widening and drainage work along this portion of the highway. This work brings us that much closer to finishing the final funded HOV project on I-5 through Tacoma. An end that will ease congestion on I-5, add HOV lanes, build a new bridge over the Puyallup River and cap off construction. YAY!

Traffic Shifts

A series of lane shifts on I-5 will start later this July near East Portland Avenue to East McKinley Way. We know these shifts will bring a new experience for the traveling public, so we will be communicating often about what is happening and when. As a starting point, here is what I-5 looks like now, before we shift lanes.
Map of the current I-5 layout
The current setup of I-5 in our project area as of July 1, 2020.

Step One: Close a ramp, close a lane and shift an exit
The first stage of changes to I-5 moves the Portland Avenue exit west and reduces the I-705 on-ramp to one lane to allow for concrete paving without any full ramp closures.

The first and biggest traffic shift drivers will notice takes place between Portland Avenue and the I-705 on-ramp to northbound I-5. Over the past year, construction crews widened northbound I-5 in this area. Now we have to realign the northbound I-5 exit to Portland Avenue.

Here’s what will happen: starting as early as July 22, we will move the Portland Avenue exit about a quarter of a mile west toward I-705 (also known as the Tacoma Spur). New signs and lane striping will be in place to alert travelers when to exit. Adjusting the location of the exit allows the contractor to keep it open during the daytime, and drivers won’t have additional detours to contend with. Northbound I-5 will remain three lanes wide, with an additional lane exiting to Portland Avenue during those times. Travelers can expect to see overnight lane and ramp closures as well.

At the same time, the northbound I-5 exit to Portland Avenue is shifted, one lane of the I-705 on-ramp to northbound I-5 and the entire SR 7 on-ramp to northbound I-5 will close.

The goal is to get this work done as quickly as possible, so cross your fingers for some dry weather days. We estimate this portion of work will be complete one month after the shift begins.

Step Two: Northbound to the right, southbound to the left
Photo of the second shift in traffic on I-5
In the second traffic shift, northbound travel moves one lane to the right and southbound moves one lane to the left. This opens up space for crews to install new drainage in the project area.

Once work is done at the northbound I-5 exit to Portland Avenue – and the SR 7 and I-705 ramps are fully reopened to northbound I-5 – another shift will be put in place. Traffic on northbound I-5 will shift one lane to the right, southbound will shift one lane to the left. Doing this opens up two temporary work zones, one between northbound and southbound I-5 and another along the north side of I-5. The contractor will use this space to install drainage along southbound I-5. We expect this shift to last between 4-6 weeks, during which time the contractor will complete drainage installation.

Step Three: The final move
Photo showing the final shift in traffic on I-5
The final phase shifts southbound traffic back to its current location and expands the median work zone.

Once drainage is installed, southbound I-5 will shift back to the right, expanding the center median work zone and removing the work zone on the north side of I-5. This move sets the stage for the contractor to begin replacing the last section of 1960’s era concrete still on I-5 in Tacoma. The three northbound lanes will remain in their new (Shift Two) location until the end of the project. Once this shuffle is complete there will be no other lane shifts through the end of the project.

Wait wait, one last thing

While construction crews will be working throughout the day, planned lane closures will only occur overnight.

There will be some noticeable changes for people looking to use the northbound I-5 Portland Avenue exit during Shift One, but overall, these shifts shouldn’t feel like a major change.

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Saving the best for last

When finished, the project will mark the end of the last funded piece of HOV construction on I-5 in Tacoma as part of the Tacoma/Pierce County HOV program. When that happens:
  • Southbound lanes across the Puyallup River will increase from four to five, with four general purpose lanes and one HOV lane that will continue and connect with the HOV lane to State Route 16
  • Northbound I-5 will include an additional lane at Pacific Avenue, an extra lane between the I-705 on-ramp and the Portland Avenue exit, and an HOV lane that connects HOV traffic from SR 16 into Seattle and destinations beyond.
  • A rebuilt L Street overpass that crosses over I-5
As the region continues to grow, these road improvements will better serve Tacoma travelers and residents. We ask you to stay safe traveling through the construction zone. Remember to slow down and pay attention near our work zones to keep construction crews and drivers safe.