In Our View: Safety and Mobility

Highway 500, St. Johns interchange project promises huge benefits to motorists

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Experienced drivers know what those orange barrels along the shoulder of a highway mean: Construction, maybe many months of construction, is about to start.

And so it is at the busy intersection of Highway 500 and Northeast St. Johns Boulevard, where a traffic light will be replaced by a large concrete overpass, ramps and assorted other trappings of a modern freeway interchange.

Even as drivers experience the first days of what will likely be two years of delays, it’s important to note why this project is so important to Southwest Washington.

When the highway opened in the 1960s, it provided a new route to Vancouver’s sleepy eastern suburbs. Westfield Vancouver mall and associated millions of square feet of retail business were not even on the horizon, and Interstate 205 was still two decades away. Today the highway carries about 65,000 cars a day, many headed between the interstates at (with luck) high speeds. With that volume of traffic, at rush hour it’s not uncommon to sit through the traffic light for more than one cycle.

No wonder, then, that the three-mile stretch of Highway 500 between Interstate 5 and Andresen Road in 2002 was labeled the most dangerous stretch of highway in seven Southwest Washington counties. Collisions at its intersections controlled by traffic signals range from 30 percent to 50 percent greater than the statewide average, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Improvements have been made, including new interchanges at Northeast 112th Avenue/Gher Road, Thurston Way and Andresen Road, and more projects will be needed in the future. But the St. Johns interchange is a critical part of making the highway safer.

About 50 collisions occur at the intersection every year. Most occur when the light turns red and motorists aren’t paying attention to traffic ahead of them. Others are like this one, which occurred in April: A westbound driver on Highway 500 tried to turn left after the light had already changed, and struck a car pulling out into the intersection. Serious injuries resulted. And, there’s always the potential for a high-speed T-bone accident that would result in multiple fatalities.

Tapani Underground of Battle Ground will do the construction at a cost of $27.2 million. Including planning, land acquisition and other costs, the project total is $49 million. The money will come from various state and federal transportation funds, including $20 million from voter-approved fuel taxes enacted in 2005.

The project was complicated by the need to provide continued access to nearby businesses. To do this, Tapani will first build a temporary detour known as a “shoo-fly” along St. Johns. Also, a portion of the nearby Burnt Bridge Creek Trail will be realigned.

By this winter, the shoo-fly will be open and construction will begin on the permanent bridge over Highway 500 and its associated ramps. Speed limits will be reduced temporarily, and left turns will be prohibited at St. Johns Road.

In the third stage, beginning in the fall of 2012, traffic on St. Johns will shift to the new overpass, and the interchange ramps on the east side will be opened. Crews will then remove the shoo-fly and build the west side ramps. Again, lanes and speed limits will be reduced. That stage of the project should take about a year. Final landscaping and project details should be completed in the spring of 2013.

By the time the project is finished, the need will be greater than ever. Traffic volume will continue to build by up to 30 percent over the next 20 years, according to WSDOT. A new Columbia River Crossing could also boost east-west traffic as people find the new bridge to be a better way to Portland.