An expansion-joint failure Wednesday on I-5 in Sodo illustrates the cost in traffic delays caused by the state’s limited spending on maintenance.

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The state’s failure to modernize 50-year-old expansion joints on Interstate 5 came back to bite Seattle motorists Wednesday morning, when emergency repairs snarled traffic from the West Seattle Bridge back to Lynnwood.

The two-lane southbound closure caused a 13-mile jam, and boosted travel times to as high as 100 minutes from Everett to downtown Seattle.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) says it took a 3:50 a.m. call Wednesday from a driver who saw a flapping steel piece, next to the exit. A team arrived at 5 a.m. to refasten the joint parts, finishing at 8:38 a.m., a spokesman said.

Wednesday’s mess follows a similar incident on May 29, 2014, when a dangling chain from a truck pulled up an old joint cover, also on southbound I-5 in the Sodo area, triggering a 10-mile backup.

But so far, there are no plans on WSDOT’s schedule to replace the antiquated steel joints with new-generation epoxy sealants — even though the state did just that for northbound I-5 through Sodo in 2007, and is currently replacing bridge joints in Marysville.

Staffers for Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson, out of town on business Wednesday, said they could not reach her for comment on what she plans to do about the problem.

Late Thursday morning, the department’s communications office sent a statement from Peterson that refers to part of the Legislature’s new 15-year transportation program.

“The $1.2 billion Connecting Washington investment that the Legislature made in maintenance and preservation specifically recognizes the importance of preserving our aging transportation infrastructure and helps make a dent in our project backlog. We are working to determine priority projects using this funding so that we can proactively manage our aging infrastructure and reduce unplanned maintenance like the expansion joint repair yesterday,” she said in the statement.

Lawmakers this year approved a $1.2 billion, highway-preservation budget within their $16 billion, 15-year transportation bill — still a small share for maintenance, but far more than earlier proposals.

“I think we have a huge backlog of expansion joints everywhere,” said House Transportation Committee Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island. “I think there is a concerted effort to go in and get them fixed.”

After raising gas taxes 14.5 cents a gallon and imposing higher car-tab fees a decade ago, lawmakers spent the lion’s share to finance megaprojects such as the Highway 99 tunnel, Highway 520 floating bridge, I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East, and I-405 express toll lanes. About two-thirds of that revenue is currently pledged just to debt service.

(MARK NOWLIN / THE SEATTLE TIMES)  Sources: WSDOT, Esri
(MARK NOWLIN / THE SEATTLE TIMES) Sources: WSDOT, Esri

“There were little or no moneys put into that area [maintenance] for the 2003-05 packages,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Curtis King, R-Yakima. “We put more into preservation in this package, to get caught up.”

That new preservation fund requires that at least $200 million be devoted to I-5, from border to border, Clibborn said.

Meanwhile, for the last three years WSDOT crews have made monthly trips to the I-5 decks overnight to inspect and refasten steel plates, said Chris Johnson, regional maintenance and operations manager.

This particular steel joint cover, which crosses two lanes next to the Columbian Way/West Seattle Bridge exit, was tightened just last Thursday, Johnson said.

“Unfortunately, it decided to break,” he said. The crack broke the 16-inch-wide plate in two, he said.

With funding short, the state has tried to buy time since 2007 by refastening and replacing steel joints, regional administrator Lorena Eng said last year. The agency has also replaced I-90 bridge joints with stronger versions in recent years.

Expansion joints are gaps between road decks, providing space for the pavement to expand or contract with temperature. Since the freeway opened 50 years ago, this area has relied on steel plate covers that slide over the gaps.

The southbound lanes at the spot of Wednesday’s mishap carry about 101,500 vehicles a day, including carpools and transit, causing stress and bending. “It’s like a paper clip. How many times can you bend it before it breaks?” Johnson said.

Johnson said state workers on the graveyard shift worked overtime to fix the I-5 flap Wednesday. “I can’t say enough good things about my crews. The guys are out there every single night to help the traveling public,” he said.

(MARK NOWLIN / THE SEATTLE TIMES)  Source: WSDOT
(MARK NOWLIN / THE SEATTLE TIMES) Source: WSDOT

They were to return to the area late Wednesday night to permanently fasten the new joint piece, he said.

During the backup, staff at the traffic-management center in Shoreline decided not to open the high-occupancy lane through Sodo to general traffic, for two reasons, said spokesman Justin Fujioka:

• Transit would be delayed leaving the city, he said.

• Through traffic leaving the I-5 express lanes, which empties into the left-side HOV lane, would converge on stopped traffic, an unsafe situation.

Interstate 5 through most of Seattle really isn’t a standard highway, but a series of viaducts.

Motorists can occasionally hear the clanging as joints loosen, as happened around South Lander Street in late September. Johnson said crews do visit the road decks overnight in response to citizen tips.

Johnson said crews have been responding to “one-off” joint problems, and Wednesday’s crack will be documented.

A major project is under way to replace 41 leaky expansion joints over Union, Steamboat and Ebey sloughs, between Everett and Marysville.

Washington lawmakers just approved an 11.9-cent increase in the state gas tax, of which the first 7 cents took effect Aug. 1, providing new money including the $1.2 billion maintenance fund.

Back in 2008, WSDOT estimated it needed $2 billion to rebuild I-5 decks and ramps, but lawmakers this year didn’t provide that, even while funding expansions of Highways 167, 405, 509 and others.

King said Seattle gets its fair share because of the floating-bridge and tunnel projects. Gas-tax money needs to be distributed statewide, he said.

“These are decisions that we make. Some may be right, some may be wrong,” he said.

If drivers see a popped-up expansion joint or any objects blocking a freeway, WSDOT encourages them to call 911.