Stuck in I-5 traffic Sunday? Oregon DOT says 'sorry'

From Dan Latham, Oregon Department of Transportation

I would like to offer my sincere apology to anyone who was stuck in traffic on I-5 south of Cottage Grove yesterday. Northbound I-5 traffic was backed up at least 10 miles, and some people were delayed more than two hours. We also had trouble with eastbound Hwy 38 traffic queuing up as they were attempting to merge into northbound I-5, which added to the gridlock.

We made mistakes, we are going to learn from these mistakes, and we are going to do whatever is necessary to prevent this from happening again.

One question that has been asked hundreds of times the last 24 hours is why ODOT did not wait until after Memorial Day to start this work. It's a good question.

The work we are doing requires digging up and replacing a one-mile section of I-5 south of Cottage Grove. The best time to do excavation is during the warmer and dryer months, which means between late spring and early fall. We have to dig down four feet, and replace each travel lane and pour new concrete. The concrete in each lane takes about four weeks to cure, which means about 10 weeks to replace two lanes. We can't do all four lanes at the same time, so we are replacing the southbound lanes now, and the northbound lanes after Labor Day.

Our traffic counts tell us that the highest traffic of the year through this area is during the month of August, due to summer travel and tourist season. We scheduled construction so that we would have all travel lanes and ramps open during the month of August. But if it takes about 10 weeks to replace the travel lanes, and if we wanted to get all lanes open by July 31, we had to start work before Memorial Day.

We are trying to impact as few peak travel days as possible. We will start work on the northbound lanes after Labor Day and finish this section the week before Thanksgiving. We're going to have all lanes open the month of August. Unfortunately, Memorial Day and Independence Day are two holidays that will be impacted.

Looking back, it's clear that I made a mistake. Our traffic projections ahead of Memorial Day suggested that northbound I-5 traffic would be backed up about five miles, with delays of about 20 minutes, which is within our normal threshold. Clearly, our projections were wrong. Since we were expecting moderate delays, I should have sent out more messages warning drivers to expect congestion and suggesting they consider alternate routes. I will not make this mistake again.

Going into Independence Day, I will send messages to the media alerting motorists to expect congestion and long delays through the work zone. We will encourage motorists to avoid the project area if possible during the July 4 holiday weekend. To ease congestion at the Hwy 38 junction, we will encourage motorists traveling to and from the coast to use Hwy 126 or other alternate routes.