Transportation officials on Wednesday fully opened the new interchange at St. Johns Boulevard and state Highway 500, allowing access to all four ramps connecting the two thoroughfares for the first time.
It's been a long wait for many commuters and neighbors, but not as long as it could have been. Wednesday's ribbon-cutting ceremony came three months ahead of schedule.
"We're here a little bit earlier than we thought we would be," said Don Wagner, regional administrator with the Washington State Department of Transportation.
The change means the formerly signalized intersection will now function as a freeway-style interchange designed to move traffic more smoothly and safely through the area. A new bridge carries St. Johns up and over 500, with the highway flowing freely underneath.
Before the ramps opened, a group of local and state leaders gathered to mark the occasion, among them state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond, state Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, and Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt. Representatives of Congresswoman Jaime Herrera, R-Camas, and Gov. Chris Gregoire also spoke.
When they finished, construction crews helped clear folding chairs and a podium perched on a highway onramp — making way for the first drive from St. Johns to westbound Highway 500 on the new interchange. A police motorcycle and a C-Tran bus led the parade of vehicles lined up for the event.
Wednesday's pomp marked a milestone for the project. But it doesn't mean crews under lead contractor Tapani Underground Inc. will pack up and leave just yet.
"We're not done with the project," Wagner said. "What we committed to the community was that we would get this open to operationally complete as soon as possible. That's what we're doing today."
Crews will still work on noise walls at the project site, continue paving on both the highway and its connecting ramps, plus complete landscaping, said WSDOT project engineer Leon Winger. The entire $48 million project is expected to wrap up by the end of this year, he said.
WSDOT offered financial incentives at various stages of the project to keep it ahead of schedule.
Crews were able to open the interchange early largely because of effective coordination and planning on Tapani's part, Winger said.
The St. Johns work is one of a handful of large highway projects under way in Clark County. That reflects WSDOT's investment in the region, which has been among the fastest-growing in the state, Hammond said. It also demonstrates the benefit of doing such work, she said.
"We're tying it all together, and you're in a perfect ground zero spot for that," Hammond said.
Removing the Highway 500 traffic signal at St. Johns improves safety for an area that used to average a collision every week, Wagner said. It doesn't, however, solve similar problems at Falk and Stapleton roads -- both signalized intersections -- to the east, he said. (Neither has funding for improvements).
Crews have now removed four traffic signals along Highway 500 over the years, Wagner said. With St. Johns gone, he said, "I've got two more to go."