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Oct. 15, 2021

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Clark Asks: No northbound I-5 ramps from Highway 500?

Vancouver, Clark County’s growth outpaced figures from when road was built

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
2 Photos
Drivers merge off and on state Highway 500 and Interstate 5 via East 39th Street last week. Unlike most interchanges, which directly connect one highway to another, the one at Highway 500 partially requires the use of surface streets, which can be an annoyance for some.
Drivers merge off and on state Highway 500 and Interstate 5 via East 39th Street last week. Unlike most interchanges, which directly connect one highway to another, the one at Highway 500 partially requires the use of surface streets, which can be an annoyance for some. Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Why is there no direct on- and offramp to (north) Interstate 5 from state Highway 500?

That question was high in mind for many of our readers who participated in our Clark Asks feature, where readers ask questions for reporters to dig into and answer.

Every day, thousands of people navigate the Highway 500/I-5 interchange as part of their regular commute.

Drivers entering or exiting I-5 via Highway 500 south of East 39th Street enjoy an uninterrupted high-speed transition from one roadway to the next thanks to a flyover ramp. Meanwhile, drivers coming from or going to I-5 north of East 39th Street via Highway 500 find themselves navigating surface streets and waiting at traffic lights.

So what gives?

Broadly speaking, it comes down to old traffic projections and modern budget constraints and construction priorities, according to officials with the Washington Department of Transportation.

When Highway 500 was built in the 1970s and 1980s, the city of Vancouver and Clark County were much less developed and much less populated than today — especially east of I-5 — and those residents had different needs from their highway infrastructure.

“When they planned out (Highway) 500, they went through all the public involvement processes and came up with what they thought the project would be and they tried to figure out what the need would be for the next 20 years,” said Rick Keniston, local programs and engineering services manager at WSDOT. “What they came up with is the four-lane freeway, with the traffic signals.”

When the project was being built, the agency had to make decisions based on what designs were worthy investments considering the budget constraints it was working with.

Then, as now, the greatest needs are from drivers going in and out of Portland on Highway 500, which explains the direct access roads. Building direct connections to I-5 north of 39th Street didn’t make as much financial sense, Keniston said.

“There wasn’t a whole lot of projected traffic to go north,” he said. And building an expensive, though more direct ramp, didn’t make sense. “At that time, the investment wasn’t worth it.”

An update to the interchange was considered in the early phases of the Interstate 5 Bridge replacement project known as the Columbia River Crossing. That project considered a flyover ramp for westbound to northbound traffic and a tunnel for southbound to eastbound traffic that would have passed underneath I-5 and surfaced near Highway 500.

The proposal didn’t make it to the final stages of the ultimately doomed bridge project.

A couple of years later, WSDOT took roughly the same concept and applied for a grant from the Federal Highway Administration to build the project, but the agency didn’t get the grant.

Still, at some point in the future, WSDOT plans to improve the highway, but it’s uncertain when.

Keniston acknowledges that it’s an inconvenience for people to have to use surface streets at the interchange, but there are more pressing issues on the agency’s list of regional priorities.

“People are used to going from freeway to freeway, and at this one they have to get off on a city street and stop at a couple lights,” he said. “It doesn’t meet your expectations of going from one freeway to another, but it’s not a safety issue or really a congestion issue.”

The real issues with congestion and safety on Highway 500 are further up the road at the intersections with Falk Road and Northeast 54th Avenue.

“There are a lot of accident problems at the signals now,” he said. “Those are our highest priorities.”

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