Crunch time on the Interstate 5 Bridge

Increase in traffic leads to greater congestion, more crashes on span

By Dameon Pesanti, Columbian staff writer

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Traffic fixes: Options sought to control flow

Aside from building a new bridge, transportation officials say there’s little they can do to significantly reduce congestion and collisions on Interstate 5. But they are considering smaller changes to highway infrastructure that would help control traffic flow and educate drivers.

“At this point our direction is whatever we can do for low-cost operational improvements,” said Rick Keniston, regional traffic engineer for the Washington State Department of Transportation.

This fall, WSDOT will study whether to add more meters to southbound onramps. Metering onramps is an effective way to gradually increase traffic capacity on busy highways. Currently just the onramp from westbound Highway 14 onto southbound I-5 is metered.

In the future, WSDOT could put variable speed limit signs, like those used around Seattle, on I-5. The agency is also looking at queue warning systems that rely on roadway-embedded sensors to detect traffic backups and post the information on electronic signs.

Both states recently installed reader boards along I-5 to tell drivers how long it currently takes to drive to major junction points. WSDOT also urges people to check its social media pages and use its smartphone application to see what is happening on the highways before they go.

“What we’re trying to do now is warn people. During the most heavily congested periods people aren’t moving very fast, so even if you have accidents they’re very minor,” said Oregon Department of Transportation traffic engineer Dennis Mitchell. “The tail end of the peak hour, when people are moving faster … is what we’re trying to deal with.”

ODOT is seeking funds to expand real-time signs that update drivers on traffic snafus farther up the road, so they can be prepared to slow down or use alternate routes. ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton said the department has seen a 21 percent decrease in crashes on Oregon Highway 217, where similar signs are in use. If the funding is approved, the signs could be installed by 2018.

— Dameon Pesanti

Vancouver resident Mark Robinette picked just about the worst time on the worst day to drive across the Interstate 5 Bridge if he had wanted to avoid being the second driver involved in a five-car pileup.

Shortly after 2 p.m. on the particularly wet Friday afternoon of Sept. 25, 2015, Robinette hit the gas to merge from state Highway 14 into the congestion of southbound Interstate 5. But what Robinette didn’t know as he was nearing 50 mph was that just on the other side of the bridge’s crest, Jantzen Beach traffic was lined up on the freeway at a dead stop.

The situation suddenly Robinette found himself in is the same conditions that cause roughly 260 crashes per year from the Oregon state line to just north of the Fremont Bridge in Portland, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation.

“It felt like, for me, I wasn’t doing anything out of the norm … I had good tires on my truck … (but) with the road being wet and the car at a dead stop in front of me, it was super dangerous,” Robinette said.

He struck the car in front of him with his 1996 Ford F-250, causing a small fender-bender. “But the subsequent collisions turned it into a major accident,” Robinette said.

The chain-reaction crash blocked traffic south into Portland. One man was sent to the hospital with minor injuries. Three drivers, including Robinette, were cited for driving too fast for conditions.

“I assume the same thing happened with everyone … all these cars came over the crest and bam, bam, bam,” he said.

Robinette’s collision was hardly an isolated incident. His was one of hundreds of crashes on the I-5 Bridge within the last few years. Most of them occurred because traffic was too dense.

According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, the roughly 1.5-mile segment of I-5 from state Highway 500 down to the state line during peak traffic hours is the most congested segment of road in the entire state.

“About 89 percent of crashes on I-5 are due to congestion,” said Dennis Mitchell, Region 1 traffic engineer for the Oregon Department of Transportation. “Of the accidents on I-5, 73 percent of them are rear-end crashes (and) 16 percent are sideswipes.”

A Columbian examination of five years of data from Washington and Oregon show fender-benders, rear-enders and sideswipes are the all-too-common byproducts of an interstate corridor that can’t safely handle the volumes of traffic that it serves on a daily basis. But, because congestion is so high and traffic is moving so slowly, serious injuries and deaths are relatively rare.

Not everyone walks away from an accident unscathed. Out of the 834 crashes, 466 people sustained possible, minor or serious injuries during a collision on or immediately around the bridge. Two people died in crashes on the Washington side of the bridge, one in 2010 and the other in 2011.

The data suggest some conclusions about wrecks on the Interstate 5 Bridge that may seem counterintuitive, even to regular commuters:

• There are more wrecks in the early afternoon than any other time of day.

• The weekend is when drivers are most accident-prone.

• Fewer crashes occur during bad weather than on sunny days.

Transportation officials on both sides of the river are working to reduce congestion and the number of collisions. But in the absence of a new bridge, they have few meaningful options.

834 crashes

Between 2009 and 2014, there were 834 crashes on the roughly 3.2-mile stretch of I-5 from state Highway 500 to the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard interchange in Portland.

In that same period, Interstate 5 Bridge traffic steadily increased from about 121,000 vehicles per day in 2009 to about 128,000 in 2014.

Both ODOT and WSDOT gather and process collision data on their respective sides of the bridge, but, while Washington had information from 2015 finished, Oregon’s most recent data only goes only up to 2014. ODOT doesn’t expect to be finished with its 2015 collision data until around the end of this year. In the interest of clarity, The Columbian excluded WSDOT’s 2015 information.

Worst days and times

To avoid being in a crash, stay off the Interstate 5 Bridge on Friday afternoons, especially around 3 p.m.

According to the data, the worst driving, or at least the most collisions on the bridge, occur on Friday. Saturday is a close second.

Between 2009 and 2014, there were 157 reported crashes on Fridays — 45 of which happened between 3 and 5 p.m. Saturdays saw 145 crashes — 83 of which happened between noon and 4 p.m.

Why Friday has the most accidents is a cause for speculation. WSDOT spokesman Bart Treece postulated it might have something to do with people’s enthusiasm for getting home for the weekend. Mitchell suggested the increase tracks with the increase in traffic that comes at the end of the week. Increased drawbridge lifts might also be a factor.

Sunday and Tuesday saw the fewest collisions, with 96 and 102, respectively.

Nearly every day of the week in every year, the worst time for crashes wasn’t during peak traffic hours. Instead, the most dangerous hours were 1 to 3 p.m.

Mitchell speculated the higher rate of collisions might be related to “peak spreading,” when people leave a few hours before the 3 to 6 p.m. rush, but end up contributing to a thicker traffic flow.

“Friday’s afternoon rush hour can start at 2 o’clock,” Mitchell said. “That’s just getting to the point where people are going a higher speed and expecting to be able to go faster, but run into congestion on the road.”

It’s not the rain

Driving in bad weather makes heavy traffic feel more harrowing, but it might make people less accident-prone.

“Do you concentrate a little harder on a rainy day? I bet you do,” said Rick Keniston, regional traffic engineer for WSDOT. “On a sunny day you might have the top down, be turning the volume up on the radio, looking around a little bit more.”

Of the 834 crashes examined by The Columbian, about 67 percent occurred on clear or partly cloudy days; about 18 percent occurred on rainy days; and about 10 percent happened on overcast days; a little over 3 percent had unknown weather conditions the final 3 percent was a mix of snow and foggy conditions.

The root cause for the crashes, experts say, is too much traffic on an antiquated roadway.

Keniston said traffic planners prefer about a mile of space between interchanges to give drivers time to merge and exit. But from the Washington state line north there are four interchanges in about 1.5 miles.

According to WSDOT, a quarter of crashes on the Washington side of the bridge were caused by driving too fast for conditions, which may include bad weather. Half of the crashes were caused by drivers following too closely or driving while distracted; about 8 percent of drivers were impaired; 8 percent failed to yield; and 3 percent involved a mechanical failure of some kind.

State of the states

The majority of the Interstate 5 Bridge lies in Oregon, so it may not be surprising to learn that state also has the lion’s share of accidents.

About 61 percent — 507 crashes in total — happened on the Oregon side. Washington accounted for 327 crashes, or about 39 percent.

Stretch the area of examination to the Interstate 405 junction near the Fremont Bridge and the number of crashes spikes significantly.

From just north of Portland’s Fremont Bridge to the state line there were 1,504 crashes between 2005 and 2014. Sixty percent of those happened in the afternoon on the northbound side of the freeway.

“The bridge is a bottleneck and it affects the entire segment from the bridge to downtown,” Mitchell said.

Washington has its share of crashes, too. WSDOT counted 570 crashes between 2009 and 2014 — nearly one crash every three days — on the first 1.5 miles of I-5 and the on- and offramps of state Highway 14, Mill Plain Boulevard, Fourth Plain Boulevard, and state Highway 500.

Most are caused by drivers jostling through three lanes of heavy traffic to use the ramps, all of which were last rebuilt in the early 1980s when Clark County’s population was less than 200,000 — not the 460,000 it is today.

“There’s a lot of slowing, a lot of weaving, with half (of the drivers) trying to get off and half trying to get on (the interstate),” Keniston said. “You end up with lots of sideswipes and lots of rear-end accidents with them just trying to maneuver around each other.”

Drivers like Robinette know those circumstances all too well.

On the day he crashed, his plan was to merge into the left lanes as soon as he got on the freeway. But due to the heavy traffic, he rear-ended someone before he could even change lanes.

The damage to his pickup caused by the rear-ender wasn’t too bad, probably no more than $1,000, he thought. But the subsequent collisions made things much worse. He was able to drive away from the wreck, but his truck was a total financial loss. He later fixed what he could and sold it.

“I never did find out why it was so backed up that day,” he said.

Robinette lives and works in Vancouver and now avoids the bridge as much as possible. On Fridays he sometimes crosses the river to meet his friends for lunch, but even when he leaves early, traffic is a problem.

“It’s super dangerous there,” he said.