Hurry! Merge! Then prepare to navigate the new slot canyon from Route 16 to I-5 in Tacoma

Highway 16 detours will test drivers’ courtesy and patience.

Take a ride through the new three-lane merge from Union Avenue to eastbound Highway 16, through the construction "canyon," and onto southbound Interstate 5.
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Take a ride through the new three-lane merge from Union Avenue to eastbound Highway 16, through the construction "canyon," and onto southbound Interstate 5.

A temporary traffic revision to the state Route 16-Interstate 5 interchange is both frustrating and exhilarating drivers.

As part of the state Department of Transportation’s ongoing commuter lane construction in Tacoma, the Sprague Avenue on-ramp to southbound I-5 is temporarily closed. Traffic now enters Route 16 via Union Avenue and must cross three lanes before getting into the two lanes that exit to southbound I-5.

If traffic is thick, that can be a harrowing experience.

“I almost got taken out by a city of Tacoma truck as he barreled over to go northbound,” Tacoma driver Liz Wishaw said Wednesday on Facebook.

Drivers have less than 1,500 feet on Route 16 to merge from the Union on-ramp to the southbound I-5 exit. That exit will one day become a single HOV lane with wide shoulders. Now, it’s two lanes of general traffic.

Once traffic gets in those exit lanes, drivers get an eye-popping ride through the heart of Nalley Valley. The road dips below giant overpasses and then cuts through a narrow, concrete, slot canyon before joining up with southbound I-5 south of South 38th Street.

“It is awesome,” one driver said on Facebook.

The temporary lane configurations are part of the Tacoma/Pierce County HOV program, which will connect carpool lanes from Route 16 directly onto I-5.

Many drivers are not happy with the signage WSDOT has provided between Sprague, Union and Route 16. More precisely, the lack of signage.

“It’s a confusing Rube Goldberg-style contraption that leaves even the best drivers shaking their heads and must surely scare the crap out of others,” Kris Sherman wrote on Facebook.

“We’ve been telling folks consistently if you’re going southbound you have to merge left,” said WSDOT spokeswoman Cara Mitchell. “Otherwise you will end up on northbound I-5.”

Currently, drivers who want to exit onto South 38th Street from Route 16 cannot. But, that changes on Sunday.

Following overnight ramp closures, a new signal will allow traffic from Route 16 to exit in either direction on South 38th Street. The signal should be operating at 8 a.m. Sunday.

“This gives drivers full access to South 38th Street while crews rebuild the adjacent westbound South 38th Street ramp,” WSDOT said.

During the overnight closures, traffic from southbound I-5 will not be able to exit on either Route 16 or South 38th Street. Drivers can detour to South 56th Street and then head north on I-5 to access Route 16 or South 38th Street.

Sprague Avenue should reopen in June along with newly built collector and distributor lanes from Route 16 to I-5, WSDOT said.

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