Traffic Q&A: State knows about bottleneck on SR 16, will study issue

Staff writerJanuary 19, 2014 

Question: Driving to the airport on eastbound state Route 16 recently, I expected a much better journey now that the new Nalley Valley viaduct is open.

To my surprise, I still hit the same old slowdown at Union Avenue, where the freeway narrows to two lanes and creates a bottleneck.

Let me get this straight: We spent a half-billion dollars for a second Narrows Bridge with three-plus eastbound lanes; we merge with Tacoma traffic with three eastbound lanes and then we get snagged at Union when it merges to two?

Is this constriction really part of the permanent plan? If so, who fell asleep at the wheel on this one? — Seamus O’Brien, Tacoma

Answer: The good news is that the Washington State Department of Transportation has at least noticed the problem. Better yet, it’s possible they’ll fix it.

“We know the current configuration still necks eastbound SR 16 down to two lanes at Union, and we are evaluating the possibility of restriping that section to three lanes through the Union and Sprague interchanges,” WSDOT spokeswoman Claudia Bingham Baker said last week.

Don’t hold your breath, though. It’s going to take some study.

“Before we make any changes, we need to make sure that three lanes will fit on the existing pavement and that we understand the effects on ramp and mainline traffic,” Bingham Baker said. “A three-lane configuration may involve changing the Union onramp to a merge rather than keeping it as an add lane. We’ll hopefully have a decision soon.”

Bingham Baker said she understands drivers’ disappointment in not seeing much improvement to eastbound traffic after being switched to the new eastbound viaduct. That’s not how things generally work, she said, noting other expansion projects along the SR 16 corridor over the past 10 years.

“Remember the day we opened the new Tacoma Narrows bridge in 2007,” she said. “It was like we lifted a curtain of congestion, and for the first time in years traffic flowed freely across the Narrows.”

The I-5/SR 16 interchange is different, Bingham Baker said, because a third component — an HOV viaduct and direct-connect HOV ramps — is yet to be built.

“Until that third project is complete in 2020, the interchange will operate at less than optimal efficiency,” she said. “The puzzle pieces take time to build, and we will do whatever we can to keep traffic moving in the meantime.”

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