Whenever politicians make decisions about spending, shiny new projects always seem to trump the old, taking-care-of-business kind of work.
This explains, in part at least, why the transportation proposal being considered in Olympia this week shortchanges the more urgent, but less politically gratifying efforts to (Yes, I am going to say it again) maintain our existing transportation infrastructure.
But no story about Washington’s neglected roads and bridges is complete without acknowledging the elephant in the room. An elephant so obvious, so significant, so big that ignoring it — as state lawmakers have so effectively done — is the only comfortable course.
The elephant of which we speak is Interstate 5. End to end. Oregon to British Columbia. 275 miles of aging interstate freeway built by the federal government, owned by the state of Washington and in desperate need of repair, rehabilitation, reconstruction and modernization.
I-5 is by far the state’s most critical transportation asset. It carries commuters and commerce on a scale never envisioned when it was built almost 50 years ago: 4.6 million people, or 70 percent of Washington’s population, live in the nine counties that straddle I-5. That’s today. The population of those counties will balloon by 750,000 people — and traffic pressure on I-5 will grow commensurately — by 2025.
What’s more, the other biggest interstate routes in Washington, I-90 and I-405, both link directly to I-5. Neither can function effectively without a well-functioning I-5. Its failure and insufficiency are not acceptable options. Yet we are coming dangerously close to breakdown.
I-5 is our top priority mega-project. Or it should be. We need to name it, develop a comprehensive engineering, traffic management and funding plan to fix it, and then make it happen. Now. Today.
Our habit of piecemeal solutions, a stab here and a stab there, won’t get the job done. We need to recognize the obvious: It’s time to talk about the elephant.
Fix and Save the Pavement
The first item on our fix I-5 agenda is pavement distress. The highway’s 50-year-old concrete has been triaged with band-aids, patches and diamond-grinding of ruts and grooves as far as its thickness and structural integrity will allow. The worst pavement is between Tukwila and the Snohomish County line; much of that mainline carries more than 100,000 cars and trucks in each direction each day. Battered pavement can be found along many other local stretches.
We’ll have to make some tough choices: Do we go with expensive, long-life concrete? Cheaper, shorter-lived asphalt? As long as we’re doing the work, should we toss design improvements, new safety features and connected-vehicle hardware into the mix to get a better, more modern, more efficient road? What is the optimal sequence for the work? The cost of pavement reconstruction alone will be somewhere between expensive and very expensive, maybe a billion dollars over the next ten years. And that’s just in King County.
There are ancillary challenges associated with this kind of extensive and long-term highway work. Traffic has to be re-routed. On the scale we’re talking about, even the most successful traffic management plan will make today’s I-5 roadwork disruptions seem trifling. Can we endure our own Carmegeddon in order to re-pave and rehabilitate I-5?
We have to include bridges in our fix 5 plan, 550 of them, carrying big sections of I-5 lanes, ramps and interchanges.Their average age: 45 years. Drivers hardly notice, but half the length of I-5 through Seattle is on bridges — slope-side on Beacon Hill, First Hill and Capital Hill, across the Ship Canal, and for a long section over Ravenna.
The last fresh overlay of concrete on the upper deck of the Ship Canal Bridge, for example, is now almost 30 years old. Peer at it when backed up in traffic on the bridge and you’ll see for yourself why replacement time is nigh: We’re talking $35 million.
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