PORTLAND — Even with the lower traffic volumes we're seeing today, the countdown is on leading up to what may turn out to be one of the biggest traffic jam-ups of the year for anyone who doesn't plan ahead.
I'm talking about the Sept. 12-20 closure of the northbound span of the Interstate Bridge, which carries Interstate 5 across the Columbia River. I hope most of you have heard about this project.
The $13 million project will replace numerous mechanical parts in the northbound span's south tower that helps raise and lower the lift span. A similar closure occurred in September 1997 to replace parts in the north tower on the northbound span.
Shutting down half of the busiest road on the West Coast cannot be done without creating some problems for travelers. So along with our partners at the Washington Department of Transportation, we're recommending you plan ahead and consider alternatives to avoid the heavy congestion. Alternatives could include delaying or shifting trips to less congested times, taking transit or teleworking.
In the months before the closure, we'll increase our public outreach reminding bridge users of the closure. The public should expect to see messages on social media, web advertising and hear them on the radio.
Here's the plan.
The 103-year-old northbound span of the bridge will close to all traffic — vehicles, pedestrians and bicycles — from Saturday, Sept. 12 through Sunday, Sept. 20.
During the closure, travelers crossing the Interstate Bridge will share the three lanes and the sidewalk on the southbound span. Movable concrete barriers will allow two lanes of traffic to travel in the busiest direction and one lane in the opposing direction. That means two southbound lanes open for the morning commute and two northbound lanes open for the afternoon commute.
The sidewalk on the southbound span will remain open for people walking or riding bicycles in both directions.
In recent weeks ODOT received many questions asking whether the reduction in traffic on local freeways because of the pandemic would allow ODOT to move up the project.
In short, no.
The project was planned for September in part because that's when water levels are at a low point, allowing more river traffic to pass under the bridge without raising the lift span. The Columbia River, after all, is a critical international shipping channel and we've worked with the U.S. Coast Guard to get the closure message out up and down the river. Shipping companies and other river users have long been planning schedules around the September closure.
In addition, several major new bridge components needed special fabrication and aren't scheduled to be delivered to our contractor until August.
We're taking other steps that we hope will keep traffic moving. Starting Aug. 1, buses will be able to operate on the shoulders of the Glenn Jackson Bridge when traffic speeds drop below 35 mph. Washington is allowing this practice now on SR 14 in Clark County.
This "Bus on Shoulder" pilot project will continue after the September closure to see if operating on the shoulders can improve mass transit times. C-TRAN is the only mass transit service operating across the Columbia River.
The most significant impact will come during the Sept. 12-20 closure of the northbound span, but the project, in its entirety, will begin in August and last until October. For the most part, this time is needed to set up and then take down the equipment for work on the lift span.
Once the northbound span is completed, the left lane of the southbound span will need to be closed day and night from Monday, Sept. 21 through Sunday, Sept. 27. The lane closure is necessary to replace concrete barriers on the median.
You can receive regular alerts about the project and see videos, maps and other information by going to the project website (interstatebridge.org).
We regret the disruptions this closure will create, especially for the many Clark County residents who work in the Portland area. We'll certainly work hard to get everything open again as soon as safely possible. Unfortunately, occasional disruptions are part of what it takes to maintain a safe transportation system and make sure this 103-year span can continue operating.
Rian Windsheimer is ODOT manager for the Portland area. Comments can be directed to 866-Ask-ODOT.
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