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Traffic at this spot on I-5 has been terrible for 25 years. Here's why

The state first made a plan to add carpool lanes in Tacoma in 1993.
Flickr Photo/Greg Nissen BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Washington state first made a plan to add carpool lanes in Tacoma in 1993.

Forget the aroma of Tacoma. Traffic on the freeway there STINKS.

“It feels like it has never not been a construction zone,” one listener told us.

Why is that?

I drove to the area to investigate and found — no surprise — two miles of highway on either side of the Tacoma Dome under construction.

Roads around Tacoma have been this way since 2001. But the plans to expand the highway date back to 1993. Consider that for a moment. That was when Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” topped the charts. Bill Clinton was sworn into the Oval Office that year. Kurt Cobain was still alive. 

And Quinn Width, who commutes to Tacoma for her job as a sports photographer, was in preschool, oblivious to a future of traffic.

The state transportation department had drafted a gargantuan plan to add carpool lanes to highways in Pierce County. The reasoning was that if carpools and buses could flow through, so would other vehicles.

Those familiar with driving in Tacoma know this is a dream not yet realized: “We are pretty much bumper to bumper traffic,” Width said.

John Wynands, the regional administration for the Washington State Department of Transportation, said many people ask why construction is taking so long at this hot spot.

“You work within the budget that you’re allocated,” Wynands tells them.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Traffic on Interstate 5 in Tacoma between South 56th Street (lower left) to state Route 167 (upper right) has been a headache for decades.", "fid": "143583", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201803/I5-Google.JPG", "attribution": "Credit Google Maps"}]]The Legislature has funded the projects with about $400 million at a time, while the entire budget is $1.6 billion.

Think of it this way, Wynands said: "We're building something that costs $100, and we're being told that we're going to get $10 a year. And so it's going to take us 10 years."

The first step was rebuilding the interchange at 38th Street by the Tacoma Mall. Six years after that, the county’s first high occupancy vehicle lanes opened on a stretch of State Route 16. But not on Interstate 5.

Cash flow is one problem. But drivers are another. Crews can’t just close the freeway and rebuild everything at once.

“If we had all the funding at the beginning, and we could close I-5 and rebuild it, you know, you could probably get through it in ...” Here Wynands paused. “You’re still looking at years.”

After all, adding new lanes changes the entire highway structure. That means crews need to build new bridges, on-ramps, off-ramps and fresh retaining walls. Crews are also repaving worn out 1960s-era concrete, Wynands said.

Doug MacDonald, the retired state secretary of transportation, described it like a dance: Crews shuffle traffic to the left, then shuffle it to the right — and build the road around drivers.

“It’s like trying to do a remodel in a restaurant kitchen while you’re trying to keep the entire flow of guests in the restaurant,” MacDonald said.

Keith Molenaar, a construction engineering professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder, said these are complex projects. So it’s not surprising that it takes decades.

“It is really difficult to expedite things,” Molenaar said. “The only thing you can really do to move things along faster is to spend more money on it.”

He said he thinks Washington’s transportation department does a good job. “Washington is one of the more efficient departments of transportation in the country, in my perspective,” he said.

It has been decades since the state transportation department recommended HOV lanes. Today, Drake is at the top of the charts —  not Whitney. And Quinn Width is married and owns a house.

But the construction still isn’t done.

Current projects should be done in 2021, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.