Tuesday, October 26, 2021

New timeline for opening HOV lanes through Tacoma

By Cara Mitchell

Earlier this summer our contractor, Guy F. Atkinson Construction, developed an ambitious but attainable schedule to move lanes of southbound I-5 to the new Puyallup River Bridge. That would have set the stage for opening HOV lanes from Fife to Tacoma before the end of 2021.

As we've seen in other industries, supply chain issues exacerbated by the pandemic are affecting our contractor's schedule. This issue, compounded by subcontractor availability and weather, has changed the timing of connecting and opening the I-5 HOV lanes from Fife to Tacoma. The new schedule now has the HOV lanes open in summer 2022.

We know this isn't what you wanted to hear. Both directions of I-5 from SR 16 in Tacoma to Port of Tacoma Road in Fife are in a temporary configuration with shifted and narrowed lanes and shoulders. Sitting in traffic congestion through the construction zone is not pleasant. We gave you a timeline, and it has unfortunately changed. It's further out, but it is still within the original project timeline.

An aerial photo taken this October of the new northbound and southbound I-5 Puyallup River bridges. The old bridge structures are being removed while the new southbound bridge is under construction.

Schedule challenges
In recent months, the I-5 Portland Avenue to Port of Tacoma Road – Southbound HOV project started seeing delays with materials such as drainage pipe and precast concrete panels needed for the project.

These concrete panels are being used in several locations throughout the project – near East 28th Street, Portland Avenue East and in the T Street work zone.

Timelines and schedules for the T Street work zone are important because this area has to be finished before we can move southbound I-5 into its final configuration. Once the T Street work zone is complete, all lanes of southbound I-5 will be moved so that you can drive over the top of it.

Unlike the concrete panels for Portland Avenue East and East 28th Street, the concrete panels for T Street began arriving on time. Unfortunately, the work crews needed to install them were not available. This set the schedule back several weeks.

Inside the T Street work zone on the I-5 Portland Avenue to Port of Tacoma Road – Southbound HOV project.

The project also saw a delay this summer and fall with the pipe needed for drainage structures on the new bridge and elsewhere. The contractor re-sequenced some of the drainage work to keep the project moving forward.

We are at a point where the drainage pipe on the new southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge must be installed. This requires an approval from the railroad because the work takes place over the railroad, on the new bridge. Finally, the drainage work elsewhere on the project must be completed prior to final paving. Wet, cold weather isn't ideal for paving.

Simply put, we can't shift southbound I-5 lanes on to the new bridge until the T Street work zone is finished. We are waiting to hear from the railroad on installing the drainage pipe on the new bridge. We need decent weather to pave the connections and final surfaces on the ends of the project to mainline I-5. It will happen, just not before the end of 2021.

Resetting the timeline

  • We anticipate that when work is finished at the T Street work zone this winter, the contractor can move into the next phase of construction, which is moving all lanes of southbound I-5 on to the new bridge.
  • From there, northbound I-5 lanes can be shifted into final alignment across the Puyallup River.
  • The connected HOV lanes from the Fife Curve to SR 16 will open sometime in summer 2022.
  • The opening of the new East L Street bridge is currently on the same schedule as the opening of the new I-5 HOV lanes.

Despite the delay in getting I-5 lanes into final configuration, the revised construction schedule is still within the original project completion timeline.

Why drive times increase through Fife and Tacoma
We frequently get asked why it takes so long to get from Fife to Tacoma or why the backups are so consistently harsh from eastbound SR 16 to northbound I-5. The short answer is, the lanes are in a temporary configuration.

Southbound I-5 from the King County line to Port of Tacoma Road goes from five lanes, including an HOV lane, down to four lanes, then to three lanes in the work zone across the Puyallup River. To put it in perspective, the three lanes in each direction going across the Puyallup River is the same number of lanes that I-5 had near Port of Tacoma Road shortly after it opened in 1963. Average daily traffic volumes in 1960 from the King County line to Port of Tacoma Road was 21,600 vehicles. In 2019, the volume for this same area was roughly 200,000.

Northbound I-5 also merges down from five lanes to three through Tacoma to the Puyallup River Bridge. The big difference is not only does SR 16 merge with I-5 on the right side of the highway, the SR 16 HOV lane merges on the left side of northbound I-5. That will change when the HOV lane opens. Travelers using the HOV lane on northbound I-5 will no longer merge into mainline just past SR 16.

The open area in the center of I-5, shown here between Pacific Avenue and Delin Street, is the home for future HOV lanes. The HOV lanes are anticipated to open in summer 2022.

Delays stink. But we're almost there.
Making plans then adjusting is a letdown for all of us. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it's that we can adjust. We will finish this project. The 20-year road trip for the Tacoma Pierce County HOV program is coming to an end. We're almost there and we have a contractor that is doing all they can to complete the project as quickly as possible. Stick with us. The benefits the project will provide will be worth the wait.

We will continue to provide you with updated information pertaining to lane and ramp closures or new changes to the schedule as information becomes available.


Latreuo said...

How many lanes will the final configuration have over the Puyallup river bridge? Will this reduce traffic?

Unknown said...

Very comprehensive report and I appreciate the straightforward message. I also appreciate that I ended my 17 year commute through that zone last year with a new job. The seemingly endless I-5 project was a factor.

Studio * 99 said...

Unbelievable, how many years have they been working on this project. This is a joke. Now the excuse is the weather, when we have had the driest summer and early fall on record. Everyone should be fired including the Dot.

WSDOT said...

Final configuration is four general purpose lanes each direction and one HOV lane in each direction across the Puyallup River. There is also an add-lane in the northbound direction, coming from East 28th Street.

We can’t control traffic volumes, and we can’t build our way out of congestion. Incorporating HOV lanes into the freeway system is one way to make the best possible use of existing highway capacity. HOV lanes are designed to move people rather than vehicles, and they provide capacity for future travel growth.

Unknown said...

Winter 2025 got it.

Unknown said...

Wow, the comments here complaining so much. I think they've done an amazing job of keeping traffic flowing albeit slowly more often than not it seems, but it flows. They didn't shut it down and rebuild, which would have lessened the time frame but made traffic a gazillion times worse as all that traffic hit every other street or freeway. The crews have had to move traffic lanes some 5 or 6 times overall so they could rebuild a couple/few lanes at a time. Most you complainers have zero idea of what it takes to get such a complex project from start to finish. It is nearing completion.

Unknown said...

I want the flowmap! Traveling 405 from Kirkland North to Lynnwood... Lynnwood is not even an option you guys know where the road is?

Joe Mama said...

Inslee's vax mandates had nothing to do with this.

Unknown said...

It's just sad. Driving for 25 years through construction in Tacoma. I live in Olympia and work in Auburn. Seems never ending, was excited when I thought it was finally getting close to being over. Oh well, more sitting in traffic for an extra 6 months.

JC said...

Thank you WSDOT and thank you to the contractors that are closing in on the completion date. I completely understand that procuring supplies and even the people to do the job is really tuff, but these contractors have finished every project thus far ahead of time. The reality is that this is a major project, and it is not going to be finished when the ground is soaking wet, or when experienced help can't be found or when you can't get the supplies you need yet, the contractors still are doing a surprisingly excellent job given the hurdles. I just want a safer highway to travel on and I am willing to wait a little longer for that! Carry on guys!

Unknown said...

If this were a priority for the state other projects would have been slowed or stopped to allow sub contractors to work on this project.
I think the author nailed this exactly. the bottleneck is the bridge over the puyallup river, why spend $1 billion dollars and make that the last thing opened? When its other peoples time and money weird decisions are made.

L Street overpass was torn down 3 years ago and the girders just went up in Dec 2021? It seems the purpose of this is simply to delay the public the ability to drive on the new roadway.

WA DOT dislikes Tacoma.
West Seattle Bridge, almost fixed
Bertha , done so long ago

WSDOT said...

The old bridge piers on the East L Street overpass had to be removed for I-5 to be widened so the HOV lanes and additional auxiliary lanes could be built. That work happened early in the project. The contractor then needed the new space that was created from widening I-5 for room to shift travel lanes during different phases of work. They couldn’t start on the new center bridge pier for the new East L Street bridge until the southbound travel lanes were close to their final location. When the East L Street bridge work finishes, the HOV lanes on both directions of I-5 will finally open.

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