Was Thursday's I-5 traffic nightmare a sign of things to come?


by Glenn Farley / KING 5 News

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Posted on May 30, 2014 at 6:01 PM

Updated Friday, May 30 at 6:19 PM

SEATTLE -- After two legislative sessions without a comprehensive transportation package, the Washington State Department of Transportation fears that I-5 will fall deeper into disrepair. There’s also concern that the state's critical north-south corridor will become even more expensive to fix in the future.

At 5:30 a.m. Thursday, a chain dragging from a truck snagged the steel cover plate over an expansion joint near Holgate in south Seattle. When pulled up, the cover plate jutted into traffic disabling cars with flat tires and even broken wheels. It's just one of dozens of expansion joints that tie together the elevated sections of southbound and northbound I-5.

There were no major injuries reported. But it took five hours to repair and the traffic mess radiated around the region including Interstate 405, the Lake Washington bridges, and State Route 99. Even northbound I-5 traffic was affected. 

That expansion joint wasn't even one of the worst ones, according to Dave McCormick, Assistant Regional Administrator for Maintenance in WSDOT's northwest region. He suspects that the chain was dragging in the pavement ruts that develop because of heavy traffic and caught an edge.

WSDOT says 250,000 vehicles use the freeway through the city each day, including up to 30,000 are trucks.

"If we do not do a better job of investing in preservation and maintenance, what happened yesterday is going to become much more commonplace," said Steve Mullen, president of the Washington Roundtable, which includes Boeing, truck maker Paccar, timber giant Weyerhauser and the Seattle Seahawks.

In the last two legislative sessions, politicians have failed to reach an agreement on a comprehensive transportation funding passage.

"The frustration is very high. We've been very clear about the need. We've been arguing aggressively for a package for the last several years," said Mullin.

He added that the state and the federal government, through a re-authorizing the Federal Highway Trust Fund, need to preserve and maintain I-5.

"We have got to keep it open and flowing if we're going to protect our economy," Mullen said.

I-5 was built through downtown Seattle in the 1960s, as overpasses stamped with the date 1965 show.

Currently a state contractor has fixed 27 of 33 of the worst expansion joints under a $13.5 million contract. The joint that popped up was not on that list, but was considered old and worn.

WSDOT wants to do more, as it did in 2007 when the northbound lanes were extensively reworked and repaved, but doesn't have the budget for that kind of project. 

"The maintenance group? We're going from one fire to the next," said WSDOT's McCormick. "Next biennium, things look way worse."