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Tacoma freeways near end of 20-plus year construction cycle (kind of)

In February 2020, construction crews are beginning the process of installing bridge girders on the new southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge. This photo gives you an idea of the size of these girders. (Washington State DOT/Flickr)

Time for our first Chokepoints of the year, and 2021 is starting with a bang. The state is about to move what is believed to be the biggest girder ever made in the United States into place over the Puyallup River in Tacoma.

This girder is 223 feet long, 9 feet high, and over 250,000 pounds. Contractors must place it over the Puyallup River and the rail yard below to help complete the new southbound I-5 bridge.

“The reason why it is as long as it is because it has to span all of the rail lines that are down in that vicinity,” said Cara Mitchell from the Washington State Department of Transportation. “It’s kind of on an angle, too.”

For some perspective, this girder is longer than the wingspan of a 747.

“From what we can tell, it’s the largest pre-stressed concrete girder made in North America, and it’s being made right here in Tacoma,” Mitchell said.

But this massive girder is just one of 30 girders left to place to complete the backbone of the southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge.

“They are anywhere from 170 feet to 220 feet, and then we have the 223 foot one,” Mitchell said. “It’s a variety of lengths, and there’s three different spans that we have to cover.”

The contractor started moving these girders into place Monday. Between three and five of them will be put into place each night until the lifting is done.

“They are scheduling three weeks of work, but if they can get it done sooner, that’s great,” Mitchell said.

Drivers should expect an overnight lane closure on southbound I-5 across the Puyallup River every Monday through Thursday until the work is completed. There will also be ramp closures at Portland Avenue, Bay Street, and Port of Tacoma Road. The final week will see two lanes of southbound I-5 blocked.

“We are also coordinating this work with the rail lines,” Mitchell said. “If we find out there’s a train coming through, we have to stand down. It’s a coordination effort that’s happening every single night.”

High winds could also delay the work.

This is the last huge piece of the Tacoma expansion puzzle before work is expected to wrap up in the fall, but Mitchell says the to-do list is still pretty lengthy.

“We have the L Street overpass that we still have to finish up, and we have the mainline road surface that has to be finished,” Mitchell said. “Setting all that barrier up, and getting the striping in for HOV, and all the signage. There’s a lot of work that’s ahead of us, but 2021 is going to be busy, busy getting this project buttoned up.”

The hope is to have everything open to traffic during the fall.

We always joke that the freeways in Tacoma have been under construction for decades, and they really have been. There have only been a few years over the last quarter century where there wasn’t construction blocking lanes or adding hassle to the drive.

This technically started last century when the state started rebuilding the I-5/Highway 16 interchange through South 38th Street.

And just as this project wraps up, the state is ramping up the Gateway Project, which extends Highway 167 from Puyallup to I-5 in Tacoma, and State Route 509 to the Port of Tacoma. So look for more construction disruptions there.

And of course, the widening continues just to the south through JBLM to DuPont.

The Tacoma area has a few more years of this left to go.

Check out more of Chris’ Chokepoints.

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