Interstate 5 construction work through Tacoma conjures images of cranes, cones, and congestion — sometimes capped by consternation.

Those C-words should turn to another — cheers — in less than two years: late 2021. That’s when the last scheduled and funded piece of the 20-year, $1.6 billion Tacoma/Pierce County HOV Program project through the heart of Tacoma is targeted for completion. That segment, which began February 2019, includes work between Portland Avenue and Port of Tacoma Road on a new southbound I-5 bridge over the Puyallup River, which includes a new southbound HOV lane.

Completion. The best C-word of all. Yes — a project that goes back two decades, the first piece of which was finished in 2001 with the I-5/38th Street Interchange project — is winding down, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). The Tacoma/Pierce County HOV Program is a series of projects to build HOV lanes on I-5, State Route 16, and State Route 167 in Pierce County. When the Tacoma/Pierce County HOV Program is complete, motorists will be able to travel in an HOV lane from Gig Harbor into King County.

With an estimated 105,000-plus workers commuting daily from Pierce County to King County and more people moving to Pierce County for affordability, efficiently moving people is key. HOV lanes play a role.

“That’s one of the reasons why getting the HOV lanes built (and) open … is so important for those who live here, because we want … to get them from Point A to Point B as fast as they can instead of sitting in a car and not going anywhere, and getting frustrated,” said Cara Mitchell, WSDOT spokesperson. “We have to be looking at alternate modes of transportation and the HOV lanes are part of that equation, and that’s why we’re anxious to get these projects complete and get these facilities open.”

The speed limit will increase from 50 mph to 60 mph, too, when the I-5 southbound bridge over the Puyallup River opens, HOV lanes are open, both bridges are operating normally (northbound and southbound traffic has been consolidated on the northbound I-5 bridge over the river since late 2018), and lanes are no longer shifted, she said.

The Tacoma/Pierce County HOV Program is more than new HOV lanes along the I-5/SR 16 corridor. It also includes new bridges, interchanges, ramps, and auxiliary lanes; replacement of highway concrete; stormwater system improvements for collecting and filtering runoff; new and upgraded traffic cameras for responding to highway incidents; and more electronic signs for traveler notification.

Another benefit is the seismic upgrades to new bridges, Mitchell said.

“We’re taking out the 1960s-era concrete and the design, and building them to current earthquake standards,” she said. “So that’s always a huge … safety benefit.”

I-5 construction has been underway so long, it almost seems a normal part of highway life through Tacoma.

“We know it’s been a long haul; we know people are construction-weary — construction fatigue is a real thing — and we do appreciate the public’s patience with us,” Mitchell said.

“The contractors are doing a really outstanding job and staying on top of schedule, and trying to set expectations, and delivering a good product to the traveling community.”

While construction is nearing an end on the north section of I-5 through Tacoma, future projects are identified along I-5 farther south, in south Tacoma to Lakewood, as part of the Tacoma/Pierce County HOV Program, but they are not yet funded. Proposals called for completing the I-5 core HOV lanes from about 38th Street south to the SR 512 interchange, plus additional related projects. Nothing is set in stone, though.

“Designs change; traffic volumes change — so all of that would have to be looked at — and dollar amounts change,” Mitchell said.

Construction trestle across the Puyallup River. Photo courtesy Washington State Dept of Transportation via flickr

Chamber, port anticipate project benefits

Tom Pierson, president and CEO of Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber, said the project’s complexity has stretched its duration, but, “The good news is that we are seeing light at the end of the tunnel.”

The project has provided hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs locally, as well.

“It has been a stress for all of us who have to go through there every day, but … in terms of the infrastructure, what that means for the businesses long-term, is going to be huge, and the fix that’s going to be in place is going to be nice, and it’s going to just add to the economic development that we have seen and will continue to see in the South Sound,” Pierson said.

He noted the final phase of SR 167 — a 6-mile missing link from Puyallup to the Port of Tacoma that has officially launched — will take years to complete as well. WSDOT estimates a 2028 finish.

“But all these things put together can be great for the South Sound, great for Tacoma, great for Pierce County,” Pierson said.

The Port of Tacoma also cited the future benefits of such projects.

“While HOV lanes do not directly serve truck drivers operating in our gateway, improvements of the overall traffic flow on I-5 are a good thing for the region,” said Akiko Oda, communications manager, public affairs for the port. “We appreciate the years of hard work put into this project as it nears completion. We are also looking forward to the construction of State Route 167 this spring, which will improve freight mobility.”

A construction worker front of a bridge girder that will be used on the new Puyallup River Bridge

Business owner looking forward to finished product

Ed Wallace has a front-row seat for the current I-5 construction as owner of Destination Harley-Davidson in Tacoma and Silverdale, both in his family since 1995. His Tacoma store sits immediately north of ongoing construction — the work between Portland Avenue and Port of Tacoma Road on the southbound HOV project, which also builds the new southbound I-5 bridge over the Puyallup River — and he is looking forward to the finished product late next year.

“I think our overall feeling is that everybody’s always happy when these projects are done … and we’re excited for this one to be done,” Wallace said.

Reflecting on the years of highway work, he said the most pressing time was last year, June through September, when the Fishing Wars Memorial Bridge (formerly the Puyallup River Bridge) for Highway 99/Pacific Highway linking Tacoma and Fife was being built over the river and after northbound and southbound I-5 traffic had been consolidated on the northbound bridge. Wallace’s shop sits between the two busy thoroughfares.

“I would look at my phone any time of day, pull up the map, and see red coming to me from the north and red coming to me from the south — so that was definitely the crescendo of congestion, I called it,” Wallace said.

WSDOT’s Mitchell vividly remembers when the old Puyallup River Bridge closed for construction. Detours included I-5 and SR 509.

“We immediately saw some of the heaviest congestion on northbound I-5 and I-705 and 509 that we’ve ever seen, and it continued all throughout the duration of that project (May 2018 to mid-September 2019),” she said. “I don’t think travelers … realize how closing one bridge like that can impact all the other systems that are in that vicinity.”

Wallace said highway work and related congestion have made it difficult at times for some customers to visit his store for events, but he’s already planning new events and taking a glass-half-full view.

“We’re positive about it and we’re excited, and we’re lucky to have a massive investment like that happening right behind our dealership,” Wallace said.

He’s also seen the benefits derived from the Tacoma/Pierce County HOV Program on SR 16, where significant work has occurred connecting to I-5, and north of it. Work has included HOV connections between SR 16 and I-5, and rebuilding the I-5/SR 16 Nalley Valley interchange.

“The progress is wonderful,” Wallace said.

Aerial photo of the new southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge construction near 20th Street East

Aerial photo of the new southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge construction near 20th Street East

60 years and a lot more vehicles

According to “The first segment of I-5 formally opened in Tacoma in December 1960, and despite some protests, construction proceeded apace through the decade. In January 1967, the final freeway section from Everett to Tacoma was completed, linking the greater Seattle metropolitan area.” Traffic volume has changed since then.

Fast forward to 2018, when an average of 231,000 vehicles a day passed the Tacoma Dome on I-5, Mitchell said. In 2000, it was 187,000 vehicles a day. That’s a roughly 25 percent increase, but counts are likely depressed by construction-weary travelers diverting to alternative routes.

At SR 16 and I-5, about 200,000 vehicles pass through the interchange daily, Mitchell said.

“We have seen unprecedented growth in Pierce County in the past 15 years, and nobody really anticipated that,” Mitchell said. “We do end up playing catch-up on a lot of our highways in the state, and I-5 through Tacoma is no exception.”

When projects conclude, though, benefits are apparent.

With the substantial completion and opening of the HOV lanes between SR 16 and I-5 in November 2019, congestion around the interchange has improved, which is a huge benefit for travelers, Mitchell said. “That’s lifestyle-changing opportunities for people, and we’re excited to get the southbound HOV project, the final funded project that builds the new Puyallup River Bridge, get that complete so we can get the entire system open between Fife and Tacoma.”

Mitchell acknowledges the 20-year project has required patience among travelers.

WSDOT is excited to get the work done and improve the traveling experience, “because that’s what’s important, is to make good life improvements for folks,” she said.