The end is near

The stop-and-go traffic through Tacoma’s stretch of Interstate 5 won’t end tomorrow, but the end of lane construction is about to begin. Photo by Steve Dunkelberger
The stop-and-go traffic through Tacoma’s stretch of Interstate 5 won’t end tomorrow, but the end of lane construction is about to begin. Photo by Steve Dunkelberger

In 2000/2001, crews first started working on lane changes along the Tacoma stretch of Interstate 5, the start of the Tacoma/Pierce County HOV Program. Construction continues through Tacoma and now is inching toward completion.

The Guy F. Atkinson Construction Co. will begin work to design and build a wider Interstate 5 between the Tacoma Dome and the Puyallup River to make room for new HOV lanes this month. This work will include a new bridge being built to carry the southbound lanes of the interstate and the demolition of the old bridge spans. The work will continue through 2021, but it marks the beginning of the end of what will ultimately be $1.6 billion worth of work.

“The final piece of the puzzle is now our focus,” said Washington State Department of Transportation Regional Administrator John Wynands. “This monumental effort represents an more than $1.6 billion investment in the highway infrastructure to not only increase capacity with new HOV facilities, but also to rebuild I-5 through Tacoma.”

The completion of this project will open HOV lanes in both directions of I-5 through Tacoma that will allow carpools and buses to have dedicated lanes from Gig Harbor on State Route 16 to I-5 north into Everett. In total, the $324 million project will add one southbound lane and an additional northbound lane at Pacific Avenue, an extra lane between the I-705 on-ramp and the Portland Avenue exit, and one HOV lane.

Drivers along Tacoma’s strip of I-5 during the next three years can expect shifted and narrow roadways, nighttime lane and ramp closures and periodic ramp closures on weekends, particularly at Bay Street, Port of Tacoma Road, Portland Avenue and SR 167.

Overnight ramp closures from State Route 16 to southbound Interstate 5 continue through Jan. 29 for drainage work. Contractor crews are preparing for an upcoming traffic shift and the next phase of construction that focuses on realigning the collector/distributor lane from eastbound SR 16 to southbound I-5. Drivers are advised to give themselves extra travel time as well as familiarize themselves with the ramp closures and detours before starting their journey.

WSDOT spokesperson Cara Mitchell said that WSDOT’s contractor, Atkinson Construction, has a goal to complete Portland Avenue improvements before the Puyallup Tribe’s new casino opens in order to reduce traffic impacts through the area. The entire southbound HOV project is expected to be complete in late 2021.


Big WSDOT projects that include multiple stakeholders require a lot of back-and-forth among the parties, one of which is the Puyallup Tribe of Indians.

“They have been stakeholders and partners in all aspects of the project,” said Mitchell. “We’re building a new bridge over the Puyallup River so we have fishing windows to work around and that plays in to the construction schedule. We meet with them on a monthly basis to update them on the project and have been doing so for years.”

As is the case with all WSDOT road projects on the Puyallup Tribe’s reservation lands, negotiations between WSDOT the tribe have to be made in order to begin construction. This results in millions of dollars in taxpayer money going to the tribe, and delays in getting projects started until the tribe agrees to WSDOT’s offers.

WSDOT’s I-5/SR 16 Tacoma/Pierce County HOV Program is a prime example. WSDOT paid the tribe $9.5 million for project impacts, which includes right-of-way easements. Key to the HOV Program is the new northbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge, completed in November 2018, and the southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge that will be built over the next two and a half years. It took two years of delays to hammer out an agreement for the northbound bridge, mainly due to concerns over construction interrupting the tribe’s access to the river to fish. More delays came when workers had to schedule around fishing seasons.

The $9.5 million payment was given to compensate for a number of factors, including putting in temporary roads to move equipment. The tribe also was given three parcels of land worth $3.8 million.

Specific to the I-5 Portland Avenue to the Port of Tacoma Road Southbound HOV project that begins in this month, WSDOT had to extend the right-of-way easements ($144,830), the construction permit ($250), and the water quality certification with the tribe, which was no cost.


But construction for car and truck lanes in the area isn’t the only transportation project reaching milestones recently. Sound Transit installed “Gertie’s Ghost,” a $250,000 art installation below a grassy berm at the corner of Pacific Avenue and South Tacoma Way as part of its recent extension of Sounder rail service from the Tacoma Dome to South Tacoma. The 12-foot-tall art consists of eight large-scale arch segments. in a style of classic railroad truss bridges, that are arranged to resemble the tentacles of an octopus emerging from the Puget Sound. The steel-and-iron sculpture was inspired by stories of the mythical 600-pound octopus that reportedly lives among the ruins of the original Tacoma Narrows bridge that collapsed in a wind storm in 1940, just months after opening. That original bridge was nicknamed “Galloping Gertie.” Money for the art came from Sound Transit’s Public Art Program, which dedicates 1 percent of its project funding for public art.

The most recent installation funded through the program locally is “Lock-On Tacoma” on the pedestrian underpass for the Sounder tracks that was installed in 2013 a block away. A future installation is in the works for Freighthouse Square. Each of the light rail stations between the Theater District and Martin Luther King Jr. Way will also include art as part of their construction in the coming years.


Sound Transit has also announced its completion of Positive Train Control on all of its Sounder commuter rail vehicles that run between Lakewood and Everett. The safety features can control train movements under certain conditions, automatically applying brakes and avoiding collisions.

“Safety is our most important priority at Sound Transit,” said CEO Peter Rogoff. “Each and every one of our riders must get home or to work safely every time. Adding Positive Train Control on all our Sounder trains will help us maintain our impeccable track record.”

Under the Positive Train Control system, should an engineer exceed the permitted speed or fail to brake on approach to a work zone or a signal, the system will automatically apply the brakes and stop the train. The added safety comes after an Amtrak train derailed on its inaugural run through the Nisqually Delta in 2017, killing three people. The train, which did not have the PTC system installed, had been traveling at more than twice the posted 30 mile per hour limit.

Sounder trains currently serve more than 17,000 riders each weekday, with the region’s rising congestion expected to continue pushing demand higher as the system expands. In 2016, voters approved significant investments in expanding Sounder South service, including longer trains and platforms to increase system capacity by more than 40 percent. Future investments will extend service further south to Tillicum and DuPont and improve stations. Other potential investments include schedule and service improvements and projects to make stations more accessible.

Rounding out the list of transportation improvements in the works locally is Pierce Transit’s Bus Rapid Transit system that will have a dedicated bus lane and pre-pay stations along the 14.4 mile stretch of Pacific Avenue from Spanaway to Tacoma. The corridor is served by Pierce Transit’s Route 1 and has the highest ridership of any route in the system, averaging 5,950 weekdays boardings. Open houses on the project are scheduled for Feb. 11 and March 11 at the Pierce Transit Training Center as well as online at


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