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Washington State DOT Reduces Travel Times with I-5 Portland Avenue to Port of Tacoma Road Southbound HOV Project

by: Larry Bernstein
Crews building a new southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge pour concrete for the bridge's pier 5 columns.
Crews building a new southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge pour concrete for the bridge's pier 5 columns.
Construction crews are spraying shotcrete for a new retaining wall along northbound I-5 near the former L Street overpass. Crews are widening northbound I-5 to build an auxiliary lane between I-705 and Portland Avenue, adding capacity to the highway.
Construction crews are spraying shotcrete for a new retaining wall along northbound I-5 near the former L Street overpass. Crews are widening northbound I-5 to build an auxiliary lane between I-705 and Portland Avenue, adding capacity to the highway.
Atkinson Construction is building a temporary work trestle that will span portions of the Puyallup River. This work trestle gives construction crews access to the new southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge as it is being built.
Atkinson Construction is building a temporary work trestle that will span portions of the Puyallup River. This work trestle gives construction crews access to the new southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge as it is being built.
An aerial view of the new southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge construction near 20th Street East
An aerial view of the new southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge construction near 20th Street East
I-5 bridge pier work takes place in Tacoma.
I-5 bridge pier work takes place in Tacoma.
Concrete is poured into bridge columns.
Concrete is poured into bridge columns.
Work takes place on pier 5 of the new southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge.
Work takes place on pier 5 of the new southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge.
Pier 8 is constructed on the new southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge.
Pier 8 is constructed on the new southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge.
Located approximately 35 miles south of Seattle in West Central Washington is Tacoma-Pierce County. The county is the setting for a major infrastructure project headed by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). The I-5 Portland Avenue to Port of Tacoma Road Southbound HOV project is the culmination of a series of projects that span over 20 years. The project is part of the Tacoma/Pierce County HOV Program that builds HOV lanes on I-5, SR 16, and SR 167 in Pierce County. Once this project is complete, travelers will be able to take HOV lanes from a point on SR 16 to HOV lanes on I-5 in Tacoma up to Seattle.

The major focus of the project building a new southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge. The original was built in 1962 and is not up to current seismic standards. In addition, there was a curvature before coming on and off the bridge that did not meet current standards. It also limited the speed travelers could drive. The new bridge will be straighter and wider. A new northbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge was completed and opened to traffic in 2018.

This section of I-5 sees frequent congestion. No surprise since the six-lane highway was opened in the 1960s when the average daily traffic was 21,600 vehicles. By 2019, the average daily traffic was just shy of 200,000 vehicles. Other sections of I-5 have expanded, with some as wide as 10 lanes.

Keeping Up with Congestion
The 1,580-foot-long new southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge will include four general purpose lanes, an auxiliary lane and an HOV lane. The bridge is 73 feet wide from one face of the barrier to the other.

I-5 is being widened in the work area, which is approximately 3 miles long, from three to four lanes. In the northbound direction side, WSDOT is adding more auxiliary lanes. This is to handle the congestion in the area, which occurs during the morning rush hour. A northbound HOV lane is also being added.

Other parts of the scope include demolishing the existing old I-5 bridges over the Puyallup River, demolishing and rebuilding an overpass that crosses I-5, replacing existing concrete pavement to the south of the new Puyallup River Bridge (between a 1-1.5 miles on north and southbound I-5), upgrading signing, illumination, stormwater collection facilities, and water quality treatment facilities.

Stakeholder Challenges
There are multiple stakeholders involved in this project. They include the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, Railroad, FHWA, City of Tacoma and the City of Fife, Transit, local utilities, and the Port of Tacoma. Some of those co-managers have permits that WSDOT has to update, obtain, or get permission from to complete aspects of the project. WSDOT has agreements with many of the stakeholders and has made commitments to reduce impacts to their facilities and operations. “Keeping stakeholders in the loop on the status of construction is critical in keeping a project of this size moving forward while meeting their needs,” said Cara Mitchell, a Spokesperson for WSDOT.
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Guy F. Atkinson Construction serves as the design-build contractor and Jacobs Engineering is the Engineer of Record on this project. As part of the contract, WSDOT requires the contractor to maintain a minimum of three lanes open in each direction during the daytime. Because lanes and ramps can only be closed at night when traffic volumes are significantly lower, the design-builder needs to develop and implement traffic staging that shifts travel lanes as new work zones are created. One example is that the design-build contractor moved both northbound and southbound travel lanes onto the new northbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge. “They had to do this so the old bridge structures could be removed, and the new southbound bridge could be built,” Mitchell said.

Part of the work zone is over the river and several railroad lines. The team had to demolish the old northbound and southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridges that go over the river and the railroad. Finding a way to do so that it did not disrupt the river, its habitat, and the railroad was another challenge.

Atkinson Construction, another member of the team, used a custom-designed piece of equipment that can be described as a “Beam Moving System” to pick and move the old existing bridge girders. The contractor used this equipment to pick up girders and move them to an area where they could be demolished, away from the river and the railroad. This reduced the risk of having debris from the demolition activity fall into the river or onto the railroad tracks. Atkinson performed this workaround in tribal fishing seasons.

“The machine was quite large and was painted a bright red/orange,” Mitchell said. “It caught the attention of travelers who then described it as a dinosaur.”

A unique element to this project is dealing with the longest prestressed concrete girder made in North America. The girder measures 223 feet long, almost 9 feet high, and more than 246,500 pounds. While it was manufactured locally in Tacoma, so it was a short trip to get it on site, “We had to choreograph it very carefully,” Mitchell said. The girder was moved in the middle of the night and set during the early morning hours of a Saturday in January.

Funding and Schedule
Guy F. Atkinson Construction and Jacobs Engineering team recently completed a project in the area and is in the middle of another one. The team was selected after going through a competitive process.
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The $325 million project is entirely state-funded. Funding for this project was approved by the State Legislature by the 2005 Transportation Partnership Program. It included a 9.5 cent gas tax increase. It was part of a revenue package approved in 2005 to fund 274 projects across the state over 16 years.

Work to build a new southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge began in February 2019. The contractors initial schedule had the new bridge and HOV lanes opened to traffic by the end of 2021. However, the date has been pushed back to the summer of 2022, which is also within the overall contract schedule between WSDOT and Atkinson.

Mitchell points to a few reasons for the new completion date. These include delays in the supply of required materials, a carpenters strike, and an approximately one-month halt on active WSDOT projects during the early stages of the pandemic.

When the project is complete, travelers will see reduced drive times through the area, especially during commute hours. Travelers who choose HOV or transit options will have a connected HOV lane to utilize. With vanpools and carpools being able to move efficiently through the corridor, there will be more reliability, which is expected to lead to an increase in ridership in multi-passenger vehicles. This will help ease demand in the general-purpose lanes and make the overall highway system work better for everyone.

Photos courtesy of Washington State Department of Transportation

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