Exit 21 off-ramp

Cars sit stuck in traffic on the northbound offramp at Interstate 5's Exit 21. 

Plans are in motion to figure out a solution for the often-congested Interstate 5 Exit 21 in Woodland as the city council approved shifting funds used to look at a Scott Avenue reconnection toward a look at the interchange last month.

Woodland City Council OKed the reappropriation of funds initially earmarked to study the reconnection April 1. Initially, those funds were given to the city by the Washington State Department of Transportation in 2013, though recently, both the department and the city have shifted their focus south to the interstate exit.

Of the $2 million originally allocated in 2013, close to $900,000 remains, Woodland Public Works Director Tracy Coleman said. She explained that during the analysis of a reconnection project WSDOT and the city couldn’t agree on what the project would look like, such as if it would be an overpass or underpass when the road would cross the interstate. The cost of any project also made the reconnection infeasible.

“You were looking at $80 million just to do this reconnect,” Coleman said. Woodland City Administrator Peter Boyce noted that a reconnection remains a long-term goal of the city, “but being practical we have an issue at Exit 21 right now and we need to find a solution there,” he said.

The city has hired Kittleson and Associates to do the study, Coleman said. When speaking to The Reflector May 9 she said the firm was revising the study’s scope to expand its look at traffic impacts coming from Clark and Cowlitz counties, not just within city limits.

The study will look at both the current traffic situation as well as what it could look like 20 years down the road, Coleman explained. She said some of the data would be how long traffic was sitting on the on- and off-ramps and where vehicles are coming from before arriving at the interchange.

Alongside potential solutions, Coleman said the study would provide a cost-benefit analysis to show how much of an investment would increase traffic flow based on different project designs.

Though Coleman saw a total reconfiguration of the interchange as a likely solution, WSDOT officials were more leery of what could be tens of millions of dollars. WSDOT Spokesperson Tamara Greenwell explained that the department has “tiers” of projects, with something like a full reconfiguration being at the upper end.

WSDOT Southwest Region Traffic Engineer Rick Keniston said that WSDOT had looked at potential low-tier improvements but now was eyeing something in the mid-tier range. 

“We’re just not seeing $50, $60, $70 million-dollar projects get funded every day around here, they’re very few and far between,” Keniston said. “Even $10 million is a lot easier to swallow than $50 million.”

The current study would need to conclude before any dollar amount could be determined for sure, however, which is expected to be in December, according to Coleman.

“Until the study is done, it’s too soon to tell how much money would be needed to help improve traffic flow through the interchange,” Greenwell said. Keniston added any project would go through a public engagement process to involve stakeholders on what a fix would look like.

Keniston said there was a study done at the interchange about a decade ago, but with the increase in traffic volume, a new study was needed. He said WSDOT’s biggest concern was how traffic backs up on the northbound off-ramp during the afternoon hours which can have cars stopped on the freeway. He added he’s seen traffic on Pacific Avenue coming from the southbound side can back up for several hundred feet during afternoon rush hour.

Though the study will provide solutions, Greenwell noted that there was no funding currently available for construction on any project. There is more than just the old Scott Avenue reconnection funds, as following the traffic study Coleman said that Woodland had received about $600,000 from the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Council of Governments to use toward the engineering of any project. 

Of the $900,000 allocated for the traffic study Coleman said it would only cost between $250,000 to $300,000 with whatever is left going back to WSDOT.

Boyce remarked that with the study started it felt like some progress was finally happening on an issue that affects much of what goes on in Woodland.

“Anything we talk about in the city, it relates to Exit 21, if we’re talking about growth or planning in the industrial area, transportation is the thing we come back to,” Boyce said. “It’s important and we need to solve it.”

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