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News / Business

First weekday of Interstate 5 Bridge repair project: ‘Things went smoothly’

Despite crash, a few other hiccups, officials pleased with traffic flow

By Anthony Macuk, Columbian business reporter
Published: September 21, 2020, 6:41pm
4 Photos
Traffic flows smoothly in the southbound direction of Interstate 5 as motorists near the Interstate 5 Bridge on Monday morning.
Traffic flows smoothly in the southbound direction of Interstate 5 as motorists near the Interstate 5 Bridge on Monday morning. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Work from home, they said. And it appears Vancouver listened.

Monday morning marked the first weekday rush hour since the northbound span of the Interstate 5 Bridge closed down for repairs, and while there were some traffic slowdowns and occasional hiccups, morning commuters appeared to largely dodge the four-mile backups that officials had feared.

The northbound span of the twin bridges closed to all traffic Saturday morning for a project to replace the trunnion and sheaves — central components of the 103-year-old bridge’s lift system — at the top of its south tower. Both directions of I-5 are sharing the three-lane southbound span during the closure, which is scheduled to run through Sunday.

The reduced capacity isn’t enough to keep up with the bridge’s usual traffic levels, so the Oregon and Washington departments of transportation have spent months warning commuters to prepare for the closure by making plans to work from home, take public transit or change up their travel schedules.

The preparation appeared to pay off during the Monday morning rush hour, with traffic flowing consistently across the bridge on the two southbound lanes and almost no backups.

9 Photos
Motorists in the northbound lane of Interstate 5, right, navigate through an altered highway as they enter the Vancouver area Monday morning, Sept. 21, 2020.
Interstate 5 Trunnion Replacement Photo Gallery

“Traffic volumes were relatively low, compared to typical Monday morning commuter traffic,” said WSDOT spokeswoman Celeste Dimichina.

In fact, things appeared to go better on Monday morning than they did on the first two days of the closure — Saturday and Sunday each saw four-mile backups at times due to vehicle crashes and heavy traffic.

“The worst day of a major closure is often the first day, when people are still getting used to it,” said ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton.

Monday morning saw more of a slowdown on the northbound side — a reversal of the usual morning rush hour pattern — due to motorists having to merge down to a single lane as they approached the bridge. But traffic still flowed consistently, and the backup only reached about one mile, according to Google Maps traffic data.

“Things went smoothly. We expected to see traffic slow but steady, and that’s what we saw,” Hamilton said.

There were a couple of disruptions as the day went on. The first came a little after 9 a.m., when WSDOT officials and work crews on the bridge noticed that a section of the temporary barrier between the northbound and southbound traffic lanes had moved slightly out of alignment.

Freeway traffic was halted for about 15 minutes on the northbound side, and also for a few minutes on the southbound side, while WSDOT emergency response crews used a utility truck to nudge the barrier back into place. It’s unknown how the barrier got out of alignment, Dimichina said.

At noon, crews drove a “zipper” machine across the bridge to move the temporary barrier to the other side of the center lane, reversing the direction of traffic. The process will repeat every day at 2 a.m. and noon so that there are always two southbound lanes in the morning and two northbound lanes in the afternoons and evenings.

The second disruption was a three-car pile-up that occurred near the north end of the bridge on the southbound side at about 1:30 p.m., roughly an hour after the zipper machine had reduced the southbound side to one travel lane.

Southbound traffic was halted for about 30 minutes while crews worked to clear the wreck. The front car was able to be driven away under its own power, according to a tweet from Washington State Patrol public information officer Will Finn, but the middle and rear cars required tow trucks, each of which had to back up across most of the length of the bridge from Hayden Island to reach the crash site.

WSDOT’s emergency response team has tow trucks on standby for those kinds of situations, Dimichina said. The incident created a traffic jam on I-5 south that stretched north of 39th Street into Minnehaha and spilled over into some arterial streets downtown.

Traffic flow improved after the collision cleared, Dimichina said, but remained heavier through Vancouver heading into the evening rush hour — likely due to the reduced capacity on the bridge.

“It’s just the bottleneck of everybody being shifted from three lanes to two and down to one,” she said. “Those transitions are hard.”

Southbound traffic also started to get heavier in the afternoon on Interstate 205 approaching the Glenn Jackson Bridge, following smooth traffic throughout the morning and early afternoon — although Dimichina said traffic was still flowing smoothly at about 5 p.m.

Contractor crews for ODOT continued their work on the northbound span throughout the day, including the removal of one of the two original sheaves and trunnions from the south tower. The repair work is still on schedule, Hamilton said.

Columbian business reporter