We have heard the warnings. Soon we’ll learn whether anybody was listening.
Beginning Saturday, the northbound lanes of the Interstate 5 Bridge will be closed for repairs that are expected to last nine days. That will send all traffic — more than 125,000 vehicles a day during normal times — into the three lanes that typically flow south. Two lanes will carry southbound traffic during the morning, and the middle lane will be switched to northbound in the afternoon.
Consider it the congestion equivalent of squeezing 10 pounds of stuff into a five-pound bag.
The need for the $13 million maintenance project is evident. One trunnion — a 20-inch diameter axle that helps facilitate bridge lifts — has developed a crack, and that crack is expanding. Other components also will be replaced on a bridge that was constructed in 1917. “These are parts that go back to the opening of the bridge,” said Don Hamilton of the Oregon Department of Transportation.
In other words, they are old. Really old. So old that Clark County had about 30,000 residents when they were put in place. And they have admirably served their purpose through countless bridge lifts for more than a century.
Now, we could lament the fact that an essential 21st century corridor in a major metropolitan area is still using technology from the early 20th century. We could complain about an essential economic artery employing a drawbridge that frequently brings traffic to a halt. As somebody once quipped, the I-5 Bridge is the only stop sign between Canada and Mexico.
But such complaints have been registered countless times over the years, and at the moment they are moot. For now, what matters is that the northbound bridge will be out of commission for more than a week, and that we better be prepared.
For their part, transportation agencies have spent months getting the word out. We hope commuters have been paying attention and have planned to either take time off or work from home. And it probably would be wise to forgo recreational trips between Clark County and Portland during the closure.
That is not possible for everybody, especially with an estimated 70,000 Clark County residents working on the south side of the Columbia River, but any reduction in vehicles will be beneficial. Oregon officials estimate that the typical rush hour volume of vehicles will result in backups of about four miles — double the usual length — and 16 hours of congestion per day.
Notably, nearby freeway ramps will be closed during the construction, including the ramp from Highway 14 and downtown Vancouver to southbound I-5. Instead, drivers will need to use the Mill Plain Boulevard entrance to Interstate 5. All of this likely will impact Interstate 205, as well, with some motorists changing their behavior in an attempt to avoid the I-5 carpocalypse. But Oregon officials say the I-205 Bridge already is at capacity.
Meanwhile, for those hoping that a coronavirus-related reduction in traffic will ease the congestion, there is some bad news. As of mid-August, I-5 traffic in Vancouver was only 8 percent to 17 percent below normal.
Because of that, patience and courtesy will be required — although that might be wishful thinking. As newsman Dan Rather is credited with saying, “Americans will put up with anything provided it doesn’t block traffic.”
Alas, much traffic throughout the metro area will be blocked beginning Saturday — by other traffic. Consider yourself warned.