Interstate 5 drivers are one step closer to faster, safer trips through north Lewis County. The Washington State Department of Transportation has awarded a contract for the first stage of major improvements between Mellen Street and Blakeslee Junction in Centralia.

Cascade Bridge LLC of Vancouver won the contract with a bid of $21.6 million, 22 percent below WSDOT’s original estimate.

Construction is scheduled to begin in late June or early July. During the next year, crews will start work on collector-distributor lanes on both sides of I-5 between Mellen Street and Blakeslee Junction, and build bridges to continue these lanes over the Skookumchuck River.

“CD lanes eliminate merging by separating local traffic and interstate traffic,” said project engineer Colin Newell. “So local drivers can use the CD lanes to get between Chehalis and Centralia, and don’t have to worry about merging onto I-5 just to exit a short distance later. Likewise, drivers on I-5 don’t have to deal with lane changes and slowing down for merging traffic, which keeps everybody safer and moving.”

Another way this project helps keep traffic flowing is by connecting Louisiana Avenue and Airport Road on the west side of I-5. The Louisiana Avenue-Airport Road Connection links the two roads over the Airport Road dike, giving drivers a more direct travel option to the Chehalis-Centralia Airport and local commercial areas. Crews also will construct a bicycle-pedestrian path as part of this work.

I-5 drivers can expect nighttime lane and ramp closures throughout construction. Airport Road will be closed in two locations – a half-mile south of Mellen Street and on the north end of the airport.

The second stage of this project is scheduled to begin in summer 2013. Stage 2 completes construction of the CD lanes, improves interchanges at Mellen Street and Harrison Avenue, straightens the Blakeslee curve and rehabilitates the existing I-5 Skookumchuck River bridges.

Drivers can sign up online to receive email updates and follow the project through construction.