Oregon DOT Combats Congestion on US 26
Widening Sunset Highway: Bright Economic Outlook Requires US 26 Upgrades
Oregon's U.S. 26 is the main avenue out of Portland. The highway, which was begun in 1933 and completed in 1949, is known as the Sunset Highway. Named to honor the Portland-based 41st Infantry Division as they were the first U.S. troops to deploy in WWII after Pearl Harbor; the division wore a sunset emblem. The east west highway, which has a terminus just inland to the Pacific Ocean and crosses the state to Idaho, leads drivers to the western suburbs of Portland. The area around this section of the highway is being widened.
The reason for widening the area between Cornelius Pass Road and Northwest185th Avenue is congestion. While the number of cars on the road has increased dramatically since the highway's completion in 1949, the area itself has seen a particularly big uptick in traffic in the last 30 years. The Nike headquarters and four Intel campuses have driven the rise in traffic in the Portland suburbs. These two companies alone employ approximately 31,000 employees in their local facilities. In addition, the bright jobs picture and the increase in residences mean the congestion pressures in Washington County will continue to grow.
Years in the Making
According to Don Hamilton, Spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), the project has been on the drawing board for a long time. It's not the first segment of U.S. 26 that has been widened. ODOT has been widening U.S. 26 in the Portland area for a number of years and have been doing so primarily in a linear fashion. However, they also respond to trouble spots and widen them as they can, budget permitting.
The current project will allow the section of U.S. 26 being worked on to go from two to three lanes. Once complete, there will be three travel lanes in each direction from downtown Portland to Cornelius Pass Road. Most of the highway widening will occur in the highway median, and the highway shoulders will be widened. It is expected the widening of the shoulders as well as cable and concrete barriers, which are being added to the highway median, will enhance safety.
The widening of U.S. 26, which will increase capacity, is also expected to improve traffic safety. On that same note, Hamilton adds that ODOT is trying to add appropriate auxiliary lanes wherever possible and reducing merging lanes. It is hoped that the subsequent reduction in merges will reduce accidents in the area. "We are doing everything we can to reduce all kinds of accidents in the area, including rear enders, fender benders, and swiping. We believe that the widening of the highway with the third lane will increase safety in the area," says Hamilton.
These are not the first alterations that ODOT has made to U.S. 26 to ease congestion. These moves include improved ramps and interchanges. "There's no magic bullet that solves all congestion problems. The most effective solution is to have a variety of commuting options including mass transit," says Hamilton.
Ahead of Schedule
Widening of U.S. 26 began in November 2016 and is expected to be completed by the fall of 2018. The general contractor, Kerr Contractors, is ahead of schedule. With the remaining work – the final paving and opening of the third lane – weather dependent, the project could be completed several months early if the weather cooperates.
With the road key to many commuters' daily trip, ODOT has tried to minimize inconveniences to the public. They are doing this by keeping the road open as much as possible during the construction. The majority of the lane closures have taken place at night or on weekends, and even those have been kept to an absolute minimum. ODOT is also limiting full ramp closures. "While this project will ultimately help commuters, we are striving to keep their current commute in mind as well," says Hamilton.
The project will include other aspects in addition to the widening. A single bridge will replace two bridges over Rock Creek. Improvements will be made to the north side of the U.S. 26/Cornelius Pass Road interchange. Finally, multiple 12 to 14 feet sound walls will be added to the north side of U.S. 26 in the Rock Creek area.
Another way ODOT is trying to minimize driver inconvenience is through its construction of the bridge that will be utilized in the project. It is being built via Accelerated Bridge Construction (ABC) Technology meaning the bride elements are being built offsite. This reduces onsite construction time and the overall duration of construction.
Insuring a Healthy Waterway
Whenever construction takes place in water, which is the case on the bridge on U.S. 26, it is imperative to be mindful of the aquatic impact. ODOT is striving to have as minimal an impact as possible on the waterways. This obligation is enhanced because there are fish bearing streams beneath U.S. 26. "We are obligated to take care of waterways for the health of the sea life and the waterways," says Henderson. This obligation can mean rerouting streams and redirecting fish during construction to ensure the fish's safe passage. While ODOT utilized a containment system to prevent construction materials from falling into the waterway, they still needed to reroute streams and redirect fish during this project. This is a short-term action. "When construction in the water is complete, we will reroute the streams to their original location," says Henderson.
Construction of the project has made use of basic earth-moving equipment, such as a track mounted excavators, rubber tired backhoes, dozers, piping and trenching gear for the water work, self-propelled pavers, rollers, 50-ton cranes for the bridge, a 16-inch diameter pile driver, striping trucks.
According to Henderson, the 34.5 million-dollar widening of U.S. 26 is currently on budget. There's been a good cooperative effort between contractors who have, as required, followed local state, and federal requirements. ODOT officials meet regularly with the contractors for updates and constantly moderating all efforts. Henderson believes this is a key, "Any effective contractual relationship requires regular meeting and discussion and review."
As ODOT nears completion of the widening of this section of U.S. 26, they'll soon head on down the road. There's more work be done to ensure a quick safe passage in and out of the bustling Western suburbs of Portland.