By Cara Mitchell
State Department of Transportation
Earlier this summer our contractor, Guy F. Atkinson Construction, developed an ambitious but attainable schedule to move lanes of southbound Interstate 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.
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.
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.
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.