Monday, August 1, 2022

I-5 HOV lanes through Tacoma opening in August

By Cara Mitchell

This is it. The moment we've all been waiting for. The opening of the HOV lanes on Interstate 5 through Tacoma will happen in late August. It's a surreal moment for us too.

Over the past three years you've hung in there with us through work zones, shifted lanes, ramp closures, overnight closures of I-5, and more new configurations of I-5 than this author can remember. Since 2019, we:

  • Built a new southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge
  • Removed all but a few remaining pieces of the old northbound and southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge
  • Widened I-5
  • Replaced the East L Street Bridge
  • Added new auxiliary lanes
  • Added HOV lanes
  • Installed enhanced lighting, stormwater collection and filtration improvements
  • Replaced aging pavement

This video visually highlights all the work that has gone into this effort from the past three years to open HOV lanes and ultimately finish the project.

Opening the HOV lanes signals a monumental moment for Pierce County transportation. To finish this final I-5 HOV project in Tacoma, we still have a few items to complete by this fall. This includes:

  • Levy fortification
  • Removing old bridge piers
  • Completing the public art installation on East 28th Street
  • Work to add dedicated left turn lanes on Portland Avenue under I-5
  • Some landscaping and river habitat restoration
  • Install final striping and recessed pavement markings on I-5
  • Rebuild the SR 167 on-ramp to southbound I-5

New East L Street Bridge opens in August too

As part of this project, crews replaced the East L Street bridge spanning I-5. The new bridge has wider lanes, wider sidewalks, and has dedicated bike lanes in each direction. The East L Street bridge was removed and replaced to accommodate I-5 widening beneath it. Neighbors on both sides of the bridge have been incredibly patient with us over the last three years as our crews worked to complete this bridge.

An overhead view of the new East L Street bridge that spans I-5 in Tacoma

About that remaining highway work

Once the HOV lanes open, you won't see much work happening on I-5. In fact, if you're not driving in the middle of the night, you may not see any work happening on I-5 near the Puyallup River.

The overnight work that is planned for I-5 on either side of the Puyallup River includes lane closures to grind and place new asphalt on southbound I-5 near the Port of Tacoma exit. Overnight lane closures will also happen when crews install the permanent reflective pavement markings and final striping throughout the project. The southbound SR 167 on-ramp will close for repaving and to remove two partial spans from the old bridge that remain near the ramp. This ramp closure time length is still to be determined and we will let drivers know the timing of this work once the schedule becomes available.

We also anticipate the reduced 50 mph speed limit will be removed, and the previous 60 mph speed limit be restored once the work zones on I-5 have been removed. The new speed limit will be enforceable once the signs are installed and uncovered.

Northbound I-5 already dodging traffic headlines

In June, our crews put northbound I-5 in its final configuration (minus opening the HOV lane). This final configuration added one general purpose lane and an auxiliary lane to northbound I-5. We noticed immediately the disappearance of this area as a trouble zone from the morning traffic reports.

The new northbound and southbound I-5 Puyallup River bridges, connecting Fife and Tacoma

Honestly, this made all our transpo-nerd hearts skip a beat and made us even more excited for the upcoming opening of the HOV lanes. We recently compared traffic data between May 2022 and July 2022 on northbound I-5 at M Street. The data shows that congestion has dramatically decreased in July, while a 12 percent increase in traffic volume occurred.

The amount of time we see congestion during peak commute hours is dramatically less. Instead of seeing four or five hours of backups and heavy traffic on northbound I-5 through downtown Tacoma, we’re seeing an hour and a half.

Summer traffic volumes are different than the rest of the year. We know this data could change once school begins in the fall. By then, however, the HOV lanes will be open. Opening the HOV lanes will add additional capacity to all lanes on northbound and southbound I-5 in Tacoma.

Safety, always a priority

We know you may be excited to drive on I-5 through Tacoma on the new, wider highways. It does take time to get used to new lanes and travel movements so please stay focused on the road and drivers around you. There may still be occasional work zones in place. We ask that you keep our crew safe while we finish this project.


Gary said...

Good news! About time!. Long ways since!

Unknown said...

It is ABOUT TIME. So incredibly sick of the 50 mph zones that people from out of town maybe don't believe are real, so you can either speed along with them or risk getting run over. Those have been up for FAR too long. I-5 has been the bane of my existence for years because of this work zone. I will dance on its grave.

Jake said...

Is there a landscape plan? Looks like it was never done for a long I-5 from 16 north.

WSDOT said...

Jake, the early projects did have landscaping plans, however as you noted there were some gaps. This final project will address the gaps in landscaping that were left from earlier projects due to the close proximity of the projects and the revisions over time that were made in the order of the project stages. The SB HOV contractor is installing landscaping from SR 16 north along the I-5 corridor to Port of Tacoma Road.

Unknown said...

At last, looking forward to the last orange flags, and orange barrels, cranes, earth movers, blah, blah, blah. A boon for getting around in, and through Tacoma.

Jake said...

Looks like WSDOT's contractor missed the fall planting season to take care of landscaping on the portions of I-5 north of Hwy 16. Any updates? Any plans to cleanup the freeways (5, 705, 16, 7, 509, etc) ROW in Tacoma? They are all a the worst they have been even after WSDOT said last winter that Spring/Summer 2022 things would start getting cleaned up.

WSDOT said...

Jake, our typical planning window is between October 1 and March 1. In areas where there is irrigation, the planting window can be extended beyond March 1. The contractor has plans to begin the remaining project planting between M Street and SR 167 in the coming weeks. They have already planted the areas near SR 16 and South 38th Street.

Cleanup is an ongoing issue for all the state highways you mentioned, and across the state. WSDOT does not have regular, dedicated litter crews, nor the funding to create them – but we stepped up our efforts due to the pandemic backlog of litter in spring/summer 2022, including diverting from some other work in some cases. This is why we must partner with others like the departments of Ecology and Corrections, Adopt-a-Highway and local communities to help address this issue. From January 1 to September 30, 2022, roughly 138,000 bags of trash was collected statewide. These totals included trash removed along roadsides by WSDOT crews, bags collected by Adopt-a-Highway, Ecology Youth Corps and Corrections crews, and items cleared near or from encampments. Volunteer Adopt-a-Highway crews are responsible for 167 tons of litter collected year-to-date – which is approximately 23,401 bags of trash.

Our maintenance crews ramped down their litter collection efforts in the fall so they can shift their efforts to snow and ice operations.
We need the public’s help in preventing litter from reaching roadways in the first place. Things like properly covering and tying down all loads, on all trips. Keep trash and debris securely gathered in a vehicle until you reach home so it doesn’t fall out or fly out of vehicles. We all have a part to play in keeping Washington beautiful and litter free.

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