Traffic on I-5 southbound out of Vancouver this week was around half of normal pre-pandemic levels
VANCOUVER — Leaving aside a fairly brutal Friday afternoon commute, the closure of the northbound Interstate Bridge span along I-5 this week could almost not have gone better.
For the better part of two years — plus a one week delay due to wildfire evacuations — transportation officials on both sides of the Columbia River have been urging people to prepare for nine days of ‘carmageddon’.
“We really appreciate drivers changing the way that they travel during the closure,” says Washington Department of Transportation spokesperson Tamara Greenwell. “We’ve seen about half the number of vehicles that would typically cross the bridge going southbound, against pre-pandemic travel numbers.”
On a typical weekday, upwards of 70,000 vehicles cross the Columbia River on either I-5 or I-205 from Clark County.
During the nine-day closure, which began on Sept. 19, traffic on I-5 has been sharing the southbound span, with a specialized piece of machinery moving a concrete barrier back and forth, providing two southbound lanes in the morning, and two lanes northbound after noon.
For the most part, the morning commute has gone smoothly, with the worst southbound backups happening in the afternoon, following the switch to a single lane of travel across the Interstate Bridge.
On Monday, shortly after the midday switchover, a crash briefly blocked the single southbound lane, causing a backup that lasted most of the afternoon. Things also backed up briefly during heavy rain showers on Thursday.
Nearly every weekday, traffic had largely cleared up by 7 p.m.
Today’s congestion was, by far, the worst of the week, with southbound traffic on I-5 stretching into Hazel Dell, and I-205 southbound backed up nearly to the I-5 split.
Even at its worst, however, the backup hasn’t quite matched the “carmageddon’’ of four-hour backups for 16 hours each day that analysts had warned about.
Some of that could be thanks to mitigation efforts WSDOT rushed to complete ahead of the project, including metered ramps along I-5 southbound from 76th Street to the SR-14/Washington Street ramp.
“Interestingly, we thought we would use it more during the morning commute,” said Greenwell, “but we ended up, and probably will continue to be, using that as we get into the afternoon commute.”
WSDOT also turned on new smart signage along the southbound freeway, featuring signs that can warn of upcoming lane closures and adjust speed limits based on traffic and weather conditions.
A bus-on shoulder lane was also added, allowing C-TRAN buses to use the left shoulder of the southbound freeway when traffic speeds dip below 35 miles per hour. The hope was both to keep mass transit as a quicker option for getting into Portland during the closure, and also reduce congestion on the freeway.
More lane closures ahead
The northbound lift span is scheduled to reopen overnight Sunday into next Monday, but commuters heading southbound should still expect delays through Oct. 1.
“While that closure is in place crews will install a new median barrier,” says Greenwell, “and pour a new concrete barrier that actually ties into the bridge structure.”
Something drivers should be aware of, says Greenwell, is that crews will likely wrap up their work a day or two before the lane closure is removed.
“We’re waiting for that concrete to cure, to tie that median barrier back into the actual infrastructure of the bridge for safety,” she says, hoping drivers won’t be confused or frustrated by the lack of active workers on the bridge.
“There’s been a lot of work, sharing this project with travelers and letting them know that it’s coming,” Greenwell sums up. “We really appreciate when people hear that message, and listen to it, to help keep traffic moving along the corridor safely.”
For up-to-date details on the project, visit InterstateBridge.org.