Highway 500 project shifts gears

St. Johns overpass to open this weekend

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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A major traffic shift this weekend will send St. Johns Boulevard up and over state Highway 500 on a new bridge for the first time.

The change will open the highway to free-flowing traffic, eliminating the need for a signal at the intersection. But it won't mark the end of the $48 million project -- crews still have plenty of work to do on the interchange connecting the two thoroughfares, and on the St. Johns bridge itself.

In fact, a break in this week's wet weather gave the Washington State Department of Transportation just enough time to switch gears. Workers put down striping and other weather-dependent preparations on Wednesday before heavy rains arrived early Thursday.

"They were working like crazy," said WSDOT project manager Lori Figone.

Crews will close St. Johns Boulevard and St. James Road between Cherry Road and East 33rd Street at 9 p.m. today to reconfigure the intersection for the traffic shift. It will reopen at 5 a.m. Saturday.

Also opening are two connecting ramps on the east side of St. Johns. One will route traffic onto the highway -- but only going east — and the other will allow westbound drivers to exit to St. Johns.

Once the shift happens, the next phase of the project will build the other half of the freeway-style interchange, putting connecting ramps on the west side of St. Johns. The result essentially buries much of the temporary route cars now use, covering it with earth and fill that will hold up the new ramps. But until that happens, drivers won't have full access to and from the highway in all directions.

WSDOT had initially planned to completely shut down St. Johns while the new interchange was built all at once. But when

area businesses and residents balked at that possibility, planners changed course and kept the road open, working around it until the bridge was usable.

Removing the Highway 500 traffic light at St. Johns will undoubtedly improve traffic flow through the intersection. It won't clear up the entire highway -- two other signalized intersections still stop traffic nearby, including the Falk Road junction just a short distance away. But WSDOT has its eye on remaking those areas in the future, Figone said.

"It's baby steps," she said. "It's kind of been one at a time as you get funding."

The agency zeroed in on St. Johns for a reason, she said. The notoriously hazardous intersection had seen an average of about one crash per week.

"This is definitely a safety project," Figone said.

Opening with the new bridge this weekend will be a revamped Burnt Bridge Creek Trail, a section of which closed as construction picked up steam last year. That's welcome news for bicyclists and pedestrians who use it. But people will still have to use caution passing through an active construction site, said WSDOT spokeswoman Heidi Sause.

The job remains on a fast track toward completion in early 2013, or even late this year. That's in part due to financial incentives built into the agreement with lead contractor Tapani Underground Inc. -- incentives that the Battle Ground-based company has so far taken advantage of, Figone said.

"That's why we put that in place," Figone said. "That was the goal of the incentive, was to get this open as quickly as possible."