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Federal Way ‘triangle’ interchange: Project will impact region's economy and eliminate a trucker's nightmare

Phase One of construction for Federal Way
Phase One of construction for Federal Way's 'triangle project.'
— image credit: Jacinda Howard, The Mirror

An eager crowd celebrated the groundbreaking of long-awaited road improvements to Federal Way's Triangle Project on Wednesday at Christian Faith Center.

The Triangle Project refers to the interchange in southern Federal Way where Highway 161 (Enchanted Parkway), Highway 18 and Interstate 5 meet. The interchange has long held a reputation for being dangerous and hair-raising for drivers. Federal Way and King County officials have worked to fund the project for more than a decade.

"You have no idea how long our councils have been working on this project," Federal Way Mayor Linda Kochmar said.

Improvements to the interchange will demand the public's patience, but are expected to make the roadways safer and easier to navigate. They will also have a positive impact on the region's economy.

"This benefits not just Federal Way, but the entire region," King County Councilman Pete von Reichbauer said.

Revisions

Construction will be completed in two phases. The first phase will replace the interchange's two cloverleaf on/off-ramps with flyover ramps. The flyovers will connect traffic from westbound Highway 18 to southbound I-5, and eastbound Highway 18 to northbound I-5. Direct access to Highway 161 from southbound I-5 and westbound Highway 18 will also be provided via new exit ramps at South 356th Street and South 359th Street. Work is expected to take two and a half years to finish.

Traffic relief

The new design will improve motorists' safety and relieve traffic congestion. The cloverleaf approach was innovative and effective when the interchange was built in the 1960s. Now, the distance provided to maneuver the converging on-ramps and off-ramps is insufficient. In the past five years, 604 accidents have occurred on Highway 18 near the Triangle interchange, said Paula Hammond, Washington State Department of Transportation secretary.

"It's so short to get off and on," District 30 State Sen. Tracey Eide said. "You're just holding your breath, hoping you can get on and off in a safe way."

On a daily basis, the interchange also slows traffic and causes congestion. Federal Way resident Kelly Robertson coaches swimming at the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center. She lives 5 miles from the center and fights daily traffic caused by the Triangle interchange. At times, it takes half an hour to travel from home to work, she said.

Economic impact

The improvements will impact the region's economy. Highway 18 ends in Federal Way. Approximately 3,600 freight trucks, many coming to or departing from Federal Way, use Highway 18 to access Interstate 5 daily, von Reichbauer said.

Flyover ramps will cut down on the time it takes freight haulers to complete their runs, said Jim Tutton, Washington Trucking Associations staff vice president. Truckers will also appreciate not having to weave between traffic, trying to avoid other motorists doing the same, as they attempt to access and exit Highway 18, Highway 161 and Interstate 5, he said.

"This project is going to eliminate what really is a trucker's nightmare," Tutton said. Watch a short video of Tutton's statement about "a great day for the trucking community in the state of Washington" from Wednesday's ceremony:

Funding sources

Federal Way has lobbied for state and federal money to address the interchange problems for more than eight years. The city has garnered support from the county, state and federal leaders, the likes of von Reichbauer, Eide and U.S. Congressman Adam Smith (D-9th District) along the way.

"I never thought I'd see this day come," Eide said. "Thank goodness it's finally here."

A total of $112.5 million is set aside for the project. In 2003, the state Legislature set aside $2.96 million, through the Nickel Package. In 2005, it earmarked $100 million generated through a gas tax for the project. Existing funds register at $687,000, and $8.8 million was federally allocated.

Due to the economy, the winning bid on phase one of the project was significantly lower than expected. Mowat Construction will perform the work. It is expected that $14 million will remain to put toward phase two of the project. Funds for that phase have yet to be identified.

"What we find in transportation investments is we just have to get it started, then we pick up momentum," Hammond said.

Learn more

Visit WSDOT's webpage at www.wsdot.wa.gov/Projects/I5/sr18sr161ic to learn more about the construction. A project hotline, (206) 440-4900, is available for updates or to leave a message about the work.

Know what to expect

Periodic traffic delays can be expected during the Triangle construction period. For the most part, motorists will have access to the construction zone during daytime hours. Much of the work will be done at night, behind barriers or out of travel lanes to avoid rush-hour traffic, said Mike Murphy, Washington State Department of Transportation spokesman.

Still, several tentative closures are scheduled. WSDOT will provide notice, as will detours. The closures are as follows:

• A 17-day closure of westbound SR-18 to the northbound Interstate 5 ramp for realignment.

• A three-month closure of the Weyerhaeuser Way on-ramp to westbound SR-18 while crews realign the ramp to accommodate the new westbound SR-18 to southbound Interstate 5 flyover ramp.

• A 10-day closure of the southbound Interstate 5 HOV lane.

• Weeknight lane and ramp closures on SR-18 and Interstate 5.

• Six weekend night full closures of Interstate 5 in one direction.

• Four weekend night full closures of SR-18 in one direction.

• One weekend full closure of the eastbound SR-18 ramp to southbound Interstate 5.

• Three weekend closures of both Interstate 5 HOV lanes, reducing the number of freeway lanes through Federal Way from 10 to eight.

• Two weekend closures of the northbound Interstate 5 right lane, reducing the number of northbound freeway lanes through Federal Way from five to four.

"There will definitely be traffic impacts, no doubt about it," Murphy said. "It's kind of a short-term pain for a long-term gain."

Funding timeline

1999: A $2 million study to identify potential solutions to traffic concerns at the Triangle interchange was funded as a result of the passage of Referendum 49.

2000: As a result of Initiative 695, funding for the study was cut shortly after WSDOT selected a consultant team. WSDOT proposed a smaller design study, funded with $250,000 — $50,000 from the City of Federal Way, $20,000 from King County and $5,000 from the City of Milton.

2001: City Council authorized the execution of the proposed WSDOT design study.

2003: WSDOT finalizes the design study, which recommends two alternatives to move into environmental analysis, once funding is found. The state Legislature funds $2.96 million for the environmental phase of the project in the "Nickel Package."

2004: The project receives a $1 million federal Interstate Maintenance Discretionary appropriation.

2005: WSDOT completes the environmental analysis as a Documented Categorical Exclusion. The project receives a $5.6 million federal High Priority projects appropriation in the federal reauthorization bill. The state Legislature funds $100 million for design and construction of phase one.

2006: The project receives a $3 million federal Interstate Maintenance Discretionary appropriation.

2007: The project receives a $500,000 federal Interstate Maintenance Discretionary appropriation.

2010: The first phase of construction is awarded to Mowat Construction. In 2010 dollars, roughly $90 million in design, right-of-way and construction, to be completed in future phases, remains to be funded.

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