Opinion

If only our traffic could be sent back to California

From the Editorial Board

Heavy traffic is a common sight on Interstate 5 through Tacoma between M Street and Portland Avenue. It contributes to the No. 16 overall ranking for this stretch of freeway in a new list of America’s worst bottlenecks, based on truck GPS data.
Heavy traffic is a common sight on Interstate 5 through Tacoma between M Street and Portland Avenue. It contributes to the No. 16 overall ranking for this stretch of freeway in a new list of America’s worst bottlenecks, based on truck GPS data. News Tribune file photo, 2015

Former Californians, this one's for you.

Do you recall why you left home and migrated to the Puget Sound region over the last two decades? Why you loaded up your Lexuses like latter-day Tom Joads, fleeing the urban jungle with the resolve of Okies escaping the Dust Bowl? Why an estimated 2,600 of you moved to Washington every month between 1995 and 2000, and thousands more thereafter?

Traffic. God-forsaken gridlock. Thoughts of grinding through the slog and smog of the Santa Monica Freeway or the East Los Angeles Interchange can still make you break out in flop sweats.

But what if we told you California’s not as bad as it used to be? Or rather, that the road network up here had surpassed the freeway system down there in its breadth of traffic awfulness?

It's true. Five of the worst 25 traffic pinch points in the U.S. are located in the Tacoma-Seattle metro area, according to a new survey of GPS truck data collected by the American Transportation Research Institute. That ties us with Houston for the most trouble spots, followed by Atlanta with three.

Los Angeles seems free and easy by comparison, with only two bottlenecks in the Top 25.

Who says you can't go home again?

Here are the biggest knots in our regional road network, in order of their national ATRI rankings:

▪ No. 7 — Auburn: state Route 18 at state Route 167.

▪ No. 10 — Seattle: Interstate 5 at Interstate 90.

▪ No. 16 — Tacoma: I-5 at I-705 and state Route 16.

▪ No. 18 — Federal Way: state Route 18 at I-5.

▪ No. 21 — Bellevue: I-90 at I-405.

If it feels like the stop-and go snarl near the Tacoma Dome has more stop and less go than ever, you're not wrong. That bottleneck moved up a full 16 places, from No. 32 to No. 16, on the ATRI list this year, the biggest leap of any in the Top 25.

The 46-mph average speed on that stretch of road (41 mph peak travel times, 48 non-peak times) actually seems rather generous.

Help is on the way — one ramp, bridge and carpool lane at a time. A bit of relief for eastbound commuters and truck freight will arrive this month when a sleek, new ramp opens from northbound I-5 onto River Road, gliding past the Emerald Queen Casino.

More projects in the Tacoma traffic nexus will roll out between this year and 2021. Southbound travelers will be asked to exercise the most patience as a spaghetti junction of connections and lane shifts is unspooled.

“They can keep on hating me for a few more years,” a state transportation field engineer recently told the TNT.

Hate won't move us anywhere faster, but additional wise investments in roads and mass transit infrastructure eventually will.

The new traffic jam rankings only enhance the credibility of the 2015 Legislature. Those lawmakers boldly approved a $16 billion package of transportation improvements, including funds to complete SR 167 from Puyallup to the Port of Tacoma after four decades of inertia.

The rankings also confirm the foresight of voters in the three-county metro area (including a minority of voters in Pierce) who last fall approved the southward phase of Sound Transit light rail.

Critics may carp about the endless gauntlet of construction in the I-5 corridor. They may bellyache about the bottlenecks never going away, just being pushed farther north or south. And they may bray about having to pay for a light-rail “spine” that won’t make it to Tacoma until 2030.

For those who don't have the stamina to stick it out, perhaps they should point their wheels south and crank The Mamas and the Papas on the car stereo:

“I'd be safe and warm if I was in L.A.

California dreamin’, on such a winter's day.”

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