For those who regularly traverse Interstate 5 near Tacoma and have wondered, while crawling past the city at a glacial pace, when the construction there might end, there’s some good news coming.
While it still will be some time before everything is buttoned up, tangible progress is being made on the project to repave I-5 and add HOV lanes and a new freeway surface in that congested stretch near the Tacoma Dome.
A number of key ramps will be reopening this fall, and work on the new northbound bridge spanning the Puyallup River is nearing completion.
“We’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Cara Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.
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Here’s a rundown on what to expect in the coming months:
Weather permitting, three ramps that have been closed for some time should reopen before Thanksgiving.
The A Street ramp to Interstate 705 from downtown should be open (weather permitting) in early October, Mitchell said.
The state Route 7 ramp to southbound I-5 also should be open by the end of October.
And Exit 133, which provides access from northbound I-5 to the Tacoma city center, should be open by Nov. 15. In addition, a new I-5 alignment there should be ready for traffic. Currently, drivers going northbound on I-5 and heading to Tacoma city center have to take Exit 132 and wind their way along to the I-705 ramp.
The “weather permitting” part, Mitchell said, has to do with how much rain is in the forecast, which affects crews’ ability to do paving and striping work.
There still are long-term ramp closures underway, including the southbound I-5 ramp to State Route 7, which is closed through the fall as crews realign the ramp to match the new realignment of I-5.
While it might be frustrating for drivers, that closure has allowed crews to begin work on pier 2 of the new McKinley Street bridge, which is being rebuilt to seismic standards and in order to accommodate a wider I-5 (that will eventually have HOV lanes). That overpass is expected to reopen to traffic in late winter 2018, according to DOT’s website.
New Puyallup River bridge update
Work is humming along on the new northbound bridge that spans the Puyallup River, which will be wider than the current bridge and lead I-5 along a straighter path when all is said and done. That bridge is part of DOT’s Portland Avenue to Port of Tacoma Road northbound HOV project on I-5.
Drivers exiting northbound I-5 to Port of Tacoma Road (exit 136B) and East 20th Street (exit 136A) will exit the mainline before the river and cross the new Puyallup River Bridge to reach the interchange. They’ll need to exit about a half-mile earlier than usual to take the new bridge up to the exit. If they miss that, they’ll have to go all the way up to 54th Street in Fife and make their way back down south.
That bridge will open to ramp traffic as early as the weekend of Oct. 13, Mitchell said.
The new bridges over the river, when fully built, will have HOV lanes going north and south and will be wider and straighter than the current roadway, which should be safer and allow for more visibility, DOT said.
“I think it’s going to alleviate congestion. I think the straighter, smoother alignment and additional HOV lanes will alleviate congestion, which we need, let’s face it,” said Tim Wasson, a DOT field engineer working on the Puyallup River bridge project.
Work on a new southbound bridge over the Puyallup River should start in 2018, Mitchell said.
The new bridges will also be more environmentally friendly. Both will have fewer piers in the river, making fish passage easier and decreasing the bridge’s overall footprint in the water.
A year of progress
Across all of DOT’s current I-5 projects in the Tacoma area, the opening of the new HOV lanes is expected to happen last. DOT’s been at it a long time, but the projects are in the home stretch. Construction on 17 HOV projects in Pierce County started in 2000 and is expected to be complete in 2022, Mitchell said. They total $1.6 billion.
To date, 21.1 HOV lane miles and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge have been built. Another nearly 11 HOV lane miles are being constructed in the final four projects, three of which are underway. The final HOV project for Pierce County — the new Portland Avenue to Port of Tacoma Road southbound HOV project, which includes building the new southbound bridge over the Puyallup River — will start in 2018.
Significant progress has been made this year, Mitchell said: Altogether, state DOT will have brought three new I-5 bridges online this year: the Puyallup River bridge, the bridge on I-705 next to the Tacoma Dome, and the bridge a little farther south on I-5 that goes over the eastbound State Route 16 ramp (that project will eventually connect HOV lanes from State Route 16 to I-5).
“That’s a lot of movement to accomplish in one year,” Mitchell said.