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July 29, 2021

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Highway 14 congested corridor to gain lanes in east Vancouver

Stretch between Interstate 205, Southeast 164th Ave. to have 3 lanes in both directions

By , Columbian business reporter
Published:
3 Photos
Traffic travels east on state Highway 14, right, as the highway is looking east at Interstate 205 Monday morning. WSDOT is plans to add a lane in each direction to a portion of the highway next year to ease congestion.
Traffic travels east on state Highway 14, right, as the highway is looking east at Interstate 205 Monday morning. WSDOT is plans to add a lane in each direction to a portion of the highway next year to ease congestion. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The state Highway 14 corridor in Vancouver is notorious for rush hour congestion, with an especially unpleasant chokepoint between Interstate 205 and Southeast 164th Avenue that tends to tie up commuters heading for Oregon.

The Washington State Department of Transportation has a project in the works aimed at easing that bottleneck, and construction is scheduled to kick off early next year.

“When we did initial modeling, (we found that) you can count on this corridor being congested every single day,” WSDOT traffic operations planning engineer Michael Southwick said. The congestion follows a rush hour pattern, he said, although the morning westbound congestion tends to be worse than its eastbound evening counterpart.

That’s based on data from before the COVID-19 pandemic, he added. Traffic volumes dropped last year but have been steadily climbing back.

The $25.4 million project aims to address the congestion by adding a third main travel lane in each direction on state Highway 14 between I-205 and 164th Avenue, along with ramp meters at 164th Avenue and a westbound “peak-use shoulder lane” to address the especially nasty westbound jam-ups.

Widening the highway

The additions will require widening the highway, although some of the space for the new lanes will come from trimming or reconfiguring the lanes within the highway’s existing footprint.

The median barrier will be shifted north, shrinking the width of the left-hand westbound shoulder and freeing up more space on the eastbound side of the freeway, according to Laura Peterson, assistant project manager at WSDOT’s southwest office.

The left-hand eastbound shoulder will be similarly slimmed down, which — in conjunction with a slight reduction in the width of the right-hand eastbound shoulder — will free up enough space on the eastbound side to fit a third lane into the highway’s existing footprint, without having to expand the road surface any farther south.

“We’re trying to minimize impact to people and use the pavement that we have,” Peterson said.

On the westbound side, the existing right-hand shoulder will be upgraded to become the third travel lane, and the road surface will be extended northward to create a new right-hand shoulder, which will be the peak-use shoulder.

Peak-use shoulders

WSDOT rolled out a peak-use shoulder on a section of Interstate 405 in Snohomish County four years ago, but the Highway 14 lane will be the first of its kind of Southwest Washington.

“Peak-use shoulder is new for folks down here,” Peterson said. “It’s used up in Seattle and done very well.”

The lane will function as a regular shoulder most of the time, only opening up to general traffic during designated hours if the other lanes become too congested. Access will be controlled through WSDOT’s regional office and electronic signs will tell drivers whether the lane is open.

The lane will likely be open for about two to three hours per day on a typical weekday, according to Southwick, although it will vary based on day-to-day congestion levels.

In the event of an accident during open hours, WSDOT will close the lane until an emergency crew can deal with the situation. The new shoulder will be built with a series of additional pull-out spots to the north — sort of a shoulder for the shoulder — where emergency vehicles can push stalled or damaged cars to get them out of the way while awaiting a tow.

The peak-use shoulder lane will be intended exclusively for traffic on its way to northbound I-205, Southwick said, and the southbound I-205 exit ramp from westbound Highway 14 will also be reconfigured to increase traffic flow.

Much of the existing congestion leading up to the I-205 interchange stems from drivers jockeying for position and shifting lanes at the last minute, he said, so part of the goal of this project is to get drivers to sort themselves into the proper lanes while they’re still farther down the road.

Ideally, traffic bound for I-205 will move into the right lane — and if the shoulder is open, it will further sort itself into southbound traffic in the right lane and northbound in the shoulder — while traffic bound for downtown Vancouver or Interstate 5 occupies the left two lanes. Drivers entering the freeway at 164th Avenue who plan to exit at I-205 won’t have to enter the two left lanes anymore.

The northbound-only restriction means the shoulder is also expected to flow faster than the other lanes, Peterson said, because it would exclude the Oregon-bound drivers who tend to comprise a major portion of the morning traffic.

Bus-on-shoulder

Peak-use shoulders might be new for Clark County, but a couple of local shoulders have found new uses as shortcut bus lanes in recent years.

C-Tran partnered with WSDOT four years ago to start a pilot bus-on-shoulder project, allowing buses to use the existing shoulders to bypass traffic congestion on both directions of state Highway 14 in the congested segment between I-205 and 164th Avenue.

The success of that program led to follow-up efforts last year in the months leading up to a partial closure of the Interstate 5 Bridge for a major repair project. WSDOT added a bus-on-shoulder option for I-5 southbound through Vancouver, and the Oregon Department of Transportation implemented bus-on-shoulder on the I-205 Bridge.

The creation of the peak-use shoulder on Highway 14 will mean the end of the original bus-on-shoulder pilot, although WSDOT communications manager Tamara Greenwell noted that buses will still enjoy some advantages in the corridor.

They’ll have to share the peak-use shoulder during the hours when it’s open to other vehicles, but they’ll retain the ability to use it even when it’s closed to general traffic. They’ll also be allowed to use the shoulder to reach both directions of I-205, rather than just northbound.

The project will also retain an existing bus-only lane on the onramp from 164th Avenue to Highway 14, allowing buses exiting Fisher’s Landing Transit Center to cut past queued traffic entering the highway and jump straight into the peak-use lane.

WSDOT expects the change to have a minimal impact on westbound bus speeds due to those advantages, Greenwell said.

“We don’t anticipate, based on peak traffic modeling, that that’s really going to back up,” she said.

Buses won’t be able to keep using the eastbound shoulder once the project is finished, Greenwell said, but hopefully they won’t need to; the worst of the regular congestion is on the westbound side, so the addition of the third lane is expected to largely eliminate eastbound congestion on its own.

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