A massive Interstate 5 widening project in Tacoma is supposed to improve traffic flow, but trucks keep crashing and blocking the freeway while lanes are being constructed.
And while the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) could impose a lower speed limit, the state chose not to do so through the curved detour, where I-5 passes the junction to Highway 16 and Narrows bridges.
Project representatives say a mandatory 50 mph limit would be futile, as all eight semi crashes happened at over the standard 60 mph limit anyway. An advisory 50 mph speed, marked by electronic portable signs, is in effect through May, when southbound traffic is scheduled to move to a wider, permanent roadway.
The latest incident occurred about 4 a.m. Tuesday, when a southbound truck jackknifed on wet pavement, knocking the center barrier loose and spilling some diesel. The wreck blocked both directions for nearly four hours, said the Washington State Patrol, which issued the driver a citation for negligent driving.
That was the eighth heavy-truck collision in six months, at a sharp curve where I-5 bends from west to south near Highway 16, said Trooper Johnna Batiste. There were no injuries Tuesday, nor in two wrecks Jan. 23, or the other five crashes.
“It’s pretty much luck,” Batiste said.
Tuesday’s crash prompted the Washington State Trucking Associations to immediately launch an awareness campaign.
“Trucks that are getting into accidents there are hitting the jersey barrier, going into the curve,” said executive Vice President Sheri Call. “In my mind, not just truck drivers but the public needs to slow down.”
Other crashes have caused injuries, and Batiste said she typically sees about one car or truck crash per day on I-5 through Tacoma. In both directions of I-5 and its ramps, there were approximately 28 injury or fatal crashes in that area between I-705 and South 38th Street interchanges in 2018-19, a state map shows.
Conditions should improve in May, when the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) moves southbound traffic into its new permanent bridge and roadway, said project spokeswoman Cara Mitchell. That’s a big milestone in the state’s 20-year series of Tacoma-area expansions to include new high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes, HOV ramps at the I-5/Highway 16 junction to reduce weaving, and total replacement of mainline lanes.
But the temporary lanes are only 11 feet wide, with shoulders sometimes 4 feet or less. New lanes are a standard 12-feet wide.
The eight collisions happened between 11:30 p.m. and about 7 a.m., when traffic is moving fast, said Batiste. The trucker in Tuesday’s crash had about six months’ experience, she said.
The curve provides little margin for error. The speed limit is 60 mph, but, “I think even going the speed limit may be too much,” Call said. The curve “is not well-marked,” in her opinion. Awareness will be important, because the future brings more roadwork on I-5 through Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Lacey, she said.
“Most of the crashes are happening overnight or in early morning. Truckers are probably anxious to get through the Puget Sound area, so they don’t get clogged in Puget Sound-area traffic,” she said.
WSDOT posted an advisory 50 mph speed limit since December, but troopers can’t enforce an advisory speed. Mitchell said a reason WSDOT didn’t make 50 mph mandatory is because that requires lengthy approval by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).
However, the FHWA said Wednesday that no federal approval is needed — and pointed to WSDOT internal rules that say a 10 mph reduction in a freeway work zone can be authorized by the state traffic engineer. What is required is that signs be posted that fit the strict FHWA measurements and designs, as decreed in the national traffic devices manual.
But the question didn’t get that far, as the Olympic Region, led by administrator John Wynands, opted to post a slow advisory speed instead.
“Does it makes sense to be putting out a mandatory speed reduction? Is that going to change driver behavior?” Claudia Bingham-Baker, the region’s communication manager, said Wednesday. “If you try to artificially slow that down, you get very little compliance.”
Thin shoulders prevent troopers from parking in speed traps or pulling over drivers on the curve. On the other hand, the patrol has unmarked units that can detect speed violations while flowing in traffic, then stop speeders after the work zone.
To improve visibility, WSDOT and contractor Skanska frequently reapply lane stripes and reflectors, including extra work after the February snowstorms.
Troopers have conducted emphasis patrols against speed and distracted driving, from Fife to the Highway 512 exit south of Tacoma. Truckers are often cut off by drivers suddenly changing lanes, officials say.
It’s not unusual for state employees to set cruise control at 60 mph and be passed by 70 mph traffic, Mitchell said.
“We need all drivers to pay attention, going through the construction zone,” she said.
This story has been updated to include information from the Federal Highway Administration about reducing speed limits in a work zone, and from the Washington State Department of Transportation about its decision to post an advisory 50 mph speed limit in the I-5 construction area.