$1.4B I-5 expansion in Tacoma, Washington, complete after 2 decades

Dive Brief:

  • After more than two decades of work, a $1.4 billion effort to build 320 miles of high-occupancy vehicle lanes in the Tacoma, Washington, area essentially wrapped with the Interstate 5 HOV opening on Aug. 26, the Washington DOT said in a blog post
  • The Tacoma/Pierce County HOV Program consisted of a series of 14 projects that added HOV lanes between Route 16, Route 167 and I-5, in addition to other infrastructure improvements. Renton, Washington-based Atkinson Construction, a subsidiary of Bethesda, Maryland-based commercial and civil contracting giant Clark Construction, was the general contractor for the recently opened I-5 project. 
  • The I-5 lanes were supposed to open last year, but builders encountered inclement weather, subcontractor availability issues and supply chain delays in receiving drainage pipe and precast concrete panels, according to Washington DOT spokesperson Cara Mitchell.

Dive Insight:

In the early 1990s, Washington DOT began to build a core HOV system on state highways around greater Seattle, and it has been expanding the system since then. The agency’s goal is to provide capacity for future travel growth, help reduce transportation-related pollution and maximize freeway system capacity by incentivizing the use of buses and carpools. 

Work on the first projects began in 2000, and the final projects involved building HOV lanes on the notoriously congested I-5 route from Fife, Washington, to Tacoma, and reworking the East L Street Bridge over the Puyallup River to accommodate the new HOV lanes, bike lanes and wider sidewalks. The East L Street Bridge reopened on Aug. 19 after a three-year closure. 

“Each project built the foundation for the next. The goal was to build HOV lanes, but we also addressed aging infrastructure, rebuilt bridges to current design and seismic standards, replaced original roadway and upgraded stormwater systems, which is critical in this area next to Puget Sound,” Mitchell said in an email.

The effort was not without challenges, however. Atkinson Construction encountered various difficulties while building the $324 million I-5 HOV lanes from Fife to Tacoma, which pushed back the opening date from the end of 2021 to August of this year. 

“Like many projects across our state, we saw delays in pipe needed for drainage structures, and plastic material used in reflective paint. We also experienced delays in the fabrication of precast concrete panels. Some of these items are not only an issue with construction projects, but with ongoing maintenance on other state highways,” Mitchell said. “There have been labor issues with union strikes that at times affected the contractor’s schedule.”

In addition to Atkinson, a slew of other construction companies worked on the projects over the years. They are:

  • Bechtel.
  • Hamilton Construction.
  • Jacobs.
  • Kiewit Pacific.
  • Max J. Kuney Company.
  • Mowat Construction.
  • Skanska USA.
  • Scarsella Bros.
  • Tri-State Construction.
  • Woodworth and Company.
  • WSP USA.

So far, the project looks to be a success.

“Since the HOV lanes have been opened, there has been a noticeable improvement in traffic flow through the Tacoma area,” Mitchell said. 

What’s next?

The opening of the I-5 HOV lanes signals the end of major construction, but Atkinson still has a few elements to finish before the project is officially complete. They include:

  • Levee fortification along the Puyallup River.
  • Removing old bridge piers from the old I-5 bridges.
  • Completing a public art installation on East 28th Street.
  • Adding dedicated left turn lanes on Portland Avenue under I-5.
  • Landscaping and river habitat restoration.
  • Rebuilding the SR 167 on-ramp to southbound I-5.

The overall project is expected to be finished this fall, according to Mitchell

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