Trans-poor-tation 3: No high five for I-5

Chehalis River flooding is just one problem that threatens I-5. Credit: WSDOT

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.

One hundred bridges will need re-decking in the next 10 years. Cost? Well, doing just the southbound deck of the bridge over the Stillaguamish River is $21 million. Add another $22 million over the next 10 years to repaint the steel superstructure of the Ship Canal Bridge, which is a structural necessity (otherwise steel rusts, a very bad thing for a steel bridge), not an aesthetic indulgence.

Retrofit the bridges

Another challenge: 225 bridges along I-5 are in need of seismic retrofit, including 58 mainline bridges in King County.That’s $750 million or so, plus the still un-estimated cost of seismic retrofitting the Ship Canal Bridge. The dollar figures are daunting, but failure to secure these structures against earthquakes is irresponsible. Remember Katrina?

The viaduct replacement project and the SR 520 replacement project underway are good steps, and if the Senate majority coalition allows the Columbia River Crossing project to move ahead, that will be good too. But infrastructure protection and resiliency isn’t satisfied by good beginnings, especially where I-5 is concerned. 

We must also weigh the near-term certainty of flooding against the long-term certainty of earthquakes. That spotlights the Chehalis River, whose flooding shut down I-5 in 2007 and again in 2009. Everyone recognizes I-5’s vulnerability to flooding from the Chehalis. Yet even now, we have only studies and stalemate to show for several years of avoided, albeit difficult, decision-making about what to do.

Finally, many stretches of I-5 are plagued by chronic traffic snarls that affect drivers, truckers and vanpool and transit riders. The best, or worst, examples are debatable and drivers into and out of Seattle will argue over their favorite nightmare spot. But this is not just a Seattle freight and commuter trauma: Look at the daily mess at Joint Base Lewis McChord, workplace of 25,000 soldiers and civilians workers, and one of the state’s largest job centers.

Proposed solutions to the JBPM jam could start soon: The transportation package under scrutiny actually offers a start on a small piece of JBLM work, emphasis on start. JBLM fixes have to be tied to longer-range strategies that address how I-5 accommodates projected growth (residential and commercial) throughout the South Sound area. 

Our vision for the future of I-5 in South Sound will be complicated. I-5 crosses the environmentally sensitive Nisqually delta and is tightly wedged between the Nisqually Indian Tribe reservation and the National Wildlife Refuge, home to the Pacific Northwest’s largest estuary restoration. Mainline tracks of the BNSF Railway cross right over the highway, greatly complicating any construction. Management solutions of a non-construction variety will have to be in the mix.   

Thousands of Washington residents commute to work along I-5: 84,000 travel from Pierce to King County. Another 116,000, a third of Snohomish County’s workforce, also commute to jobs in King County. There are only 15 locations in the country, 10 of them in New York, California and Texas, where more people commute from one county to another.These numbers go right to the heart of whether Washington’s workforce can easily get to work, the most fundamental determinant of regional competitiveness, and of I-5’s importance to the economy.   

This litany of problems with I-5 isn’t offered just to worry or carp. It’s an exhortation to Olympia: Put the clear direction and near-term funding for an overall I-5 strategy at center stage in your ongoing transportation discussions.

No single project, certainly not the new $3 billion Puget Sound Gateway Project now hanging by a thread, comes close to the importance over the next few years of prioritizing, planning, funding and carrying out the work necessary to secure the future of the state’s central transportation artery. I-5 has to become a mega-project in its own right, and a top transportation priority. The public needs to see the problem revealed and defined, and a commitment emerge.  

The legislature, the governor, WSDOT and local governments should be marching in lockstep to one place: a comprehensive, integrated and strategic program to fix 5. 

Clear focus and strong action on I-5 can’t wait. If this year’s package won’t confront the elephant in the room, we would be better off keeping a big gas tax increase in our pocket and holding out for one that will. 

Next: Time for a breakthrough tolling plan

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