After receiving complaints from Pierce County drivers, the state Department of Transportation has agreed to reconfigure lanes on eastbound state Route 16 to clear a choke point at South Union Avenue in Tacoma.
Currently, the freeway narrows from three lanes to two as it crosses Union, squeezing mainline traffic to the left to make room for vehicles entering on the Union on-ramp.
“We received numerous comments from people saying they wanted extra capacity,” said Transportation Department spokeswoman Claudia Bingham Baker. “Backups are routinely seen there, especially during morning and afternoon commutes.”
The short, narrowed section, which continues for only a few hundred yards, is the only two-lane section of state Route 16 between the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and Interstate 5. It’s a constant source of annoyance for eastbound drivers who are forced to jockey for position and often slow to a crawl.
“It’s never made sense,” said Cindy Renander, who lives in University Place. “When they finished the construction, I always assumed they’d let that third lane continue. It looks like there’s plenty of room.”
Bingham Baker said the narrowing was to accommodate the high volume of traffic entering the eastbound freeway at Union. Traffic on that on-ramp has increased dramatically during the Nalley Valley construction, she said, because access to I-5 from Sprague Avenue was cut off.
Currently, drivers who want to get to I-5 from Sprague are directed west on state Route 16. They use the Union ramps to reverse direction. Access to I-5 from Sprague is expected to reopen in July.
“Part of our concern was, if we restripe and turn the on-ramp into a merge lane, what effect does that have on the Union intersection?” Bingham Baker said. “Were we going to cause that intersection to fail by changing the use of that lane? That was the reason it wasn’t simply a no-brainer to open up that section of pavement.”
Computer models indicate the change will work, said Steve Kim, the department’s Olympic Region traffic engineer.
“We had the pavement width,” he said Wednesday, “so we started looking at it and said, ‘Why not?’”
The metered lane configuration on the Union on-ramp will not change, Kim said.
“If the merge creates back-up, we can increase the meter rate,” he said.
The change will involve re-striping the mainline pavement and changing signs. That work, he said, should take about two nights of dry weather. According to Bingham Baker, the change could happen as early as next month, but she said a May or June completion date is more likely.
Rob Carson: 253-597-8693