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New ramp meters continue to cause problems for Tacoma I-5 drivers

Portland Avenue (East 28th Street) as it enters onto I-5 in Tacoma, on the day of new ramp meters, 6:50 a.m., July 9, 2019. (WSDOT)

When ramp meters go in, complaints soon follow, and a lot of drivers in Tacoma are not happy with the latest change.

Drivers not happy with ramp meter changes near Edmonds

Three sets of ramp meters went active July 9 at the ramps at 28th Avenue East, 54th Avenue East, and Port of Tacoma Road. Almost instantly that first morning, I started receiving emails and texts about them, primarily the ramp at 28th.

Drivers were complaining of backups that extended nearly a mile back onto city streets. Now to be fair, there was a crash on I-5 north that first morning that contributed to the backup, but more than a month later, I’m still seeing backups reaching a half-mile.

The ramp backs up onto 28th Avenue for two blocks to Portland Avenue, and then Portland Avenue backs up several more. It is taking a lot longer to get to the freeway than it used to.

“We always expect a certain adjustment period within the first few days and weeks because something like that is new,” said Washington Department of Transportation spokesperson Linda Robson. “It’s a new factor that ends up changing the traffic patterns and changing people’s commutes.”

The backups have gotten better as drivers have adjusted, but the state also made some quick improvements to help that along.

“WSDOT has made some adjustments since the turn-on to help reduce some of the backups, and they’ve committed to working with the city to reduce backups onto city streets,” said Tacoma traffic engineer Josh Diekmann.

What do those changes look like? WSDOT traffic engineer Sarah Ott said they started by tweaking the signal timing on the ramps.

“We fine-tuned that algorithm,” she said. “We worked with the city about signal timing and signing and other things that we can do to try and help make things as efficient as possible.”

One big step that Diekmann believes will help right away is adding another lane to the ramp.

“Ultimately, they plan to add another lane to allow transit to bypass the ramp meters,” he said. “We’ve spoken to them about the possibility of adding this new lane now to help improve transit operations during the on-going construction.”

Setting the ground rules for HOV lanes

The original plan was to add an HOV and transit bypass lane to the ramp.

WSDOT’s Robson said they hope to have the new lane up and running by the end of the year, but it will only be for transit.

“This is something that we are going to look to expedite,” Robson said. “We’re going to make it a transit only bypass lane to try and ease some of the congestion in that major transit corridor in Tacoma.”

So, HOV drivers won’t get relief right now, but transit will. It’s possible it will turn into an HOV/transit bypass in the future.

And despite the backups onto Tacoma city streets, Ott said the ramp meters are doing their jobs, easing congestion onto the freeway and making the merging safer.

“Speeds have gone up on I-5, which with construction is really a success,” she said. “It’s still early, but we’re pleased.”

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