TIGARD, Ore. (AP) - In recent weeks, a deluge of crashes on Oregon 217’s massive “flyover” ramp in Tigard has frozen traffic and raised safety concerns. But state records show serious worries about the massive freeway structure are nothing new.
According to Oregon Department of Transportation maintenance and inspection records obtained by The Oregonian, the steep, curvy ramp connecting northbound Interstate 5 to Oregon 217 has been slowly shifting apart at a deck seam since it opened in 2001.
In the past 13 years, crews have not only had to grind, weld and shim a problematic expansion joint but have repeatedly sealed stubborn cracking in the ramp at one of Oregon’s busiest freeway interchanges, the documents show.
“There are cracks of moderate size and density on the surface of the deck over (the ramp’s piers),” an inspection report from January reads.
That wasn’t the first time cracking had been discovered, the records show.
Many engineering details in the inspection reports are hard to decipher. But ODOT isn’t willing to clear up any of the mystery at this point.
ODOT said this week that it would not answer questions about the documents, citing pending litigation connected to the flyover ramp.
“We’re going to be very circumspect and very limited in the things we can say,” said Don Hamilton, an ODOT spokesman, adding that the agency has been instructed by the state Department of Justice to refrain from talking about the records because it might “influence any potential legal action that may be coming up.”
Hamilton declined to say who was involved in the legal action or what it entailed.
Earlier this month, the transportation agency said the road joint that is gradually splitting apart had likely contributed to more than a dozen crashes in three weeks. The teeth of the huge metal seam are popping up and may be tripping up the tires on vehicles traveling faster than the 35 mph advisory speed, especially in rainy weather, ODOT said.
ODOT said tires of vehicles trying to take the steep, curvy ramp at highway speeds were in danger of hitting the dislocated section of the joint the wrong way. The faulty joint, which seams together pieces of the soaring structure, is on the right side of the left lane.
Based on information from an Interstate 5 pileup that brought Seattle to a standstill on Thursday, the Oregon 217 ramp isn’t the only section of Northwest highway experiencing problems with expansion joints.
The damaged steel joint that jammed up the morning commute in Seattle’s Sodo District is an outdated piece that state crews have been replacing on other freeway decks in the city, The Seattle Times reported. The state lacks maintenance money to improve the whole corridor, the Times’ Mike Lindblom reported.
A dangling chain on a truck caught the steel plate and yanked the teeth upward, the Washington State Department of Transportation said. The damaged joint caused a three-vehicle crash that closed three of five southbound freeway lanes through the city.
Before the Oregon 217 flyover ramp was built at Exit 292A, drivers took an off-ramp to a signaled T-intersection with Kruse Way and turned right to loop around to Oregon 217. The constant stopping and starting at a signal would lock up northbound I-5 traffic, making rush hour a daily nightmare.
Designed by ODOT engineers, the sweeping ramp - with its steep incline and sudden turn to the west - carries about 55,000 vehicles a day.
Two weeks ago, The Oregonian reported that the contractor hired to build the Oregon 217 flyover ramp received a $560,000 bonus from the state for finishing the project nearly two months early.
According to contracts obtained through a public records request, the structure was the first project built under a special and little-used Oregon Department of Transportation program offering cash incentives “to further expedite the completion” of major highway work.
Kiewit Construction has since issued a statement, saying it “firmly stands behind the quality of our work.”
Former ODOT managers who worked on the ramp project, but spoke only on condition of anonymity, said the structure presented serious challenges from the start. Because of the proximity of businesses such as Lake Oswego’s Phoenix Inn Suites hotel, they said, the geometry of the ramp was more extreme than they would have liked.
According to inspections records, ODOT crews have checked on the ramp every two years since it opened.
Some of the chronology in the reports is hard to understand. However, the first issues started to show up immediately.
“At the time of construction, forces in the post tensioning left the right pot bearing up off its bearing plate by an inch or more,” reads an August 2001 inspection report. “This was shimmed, but resulted in a minor misalignment of the finger joint, rail, etc., with the abutment.”
The problematic expansion joint just before the ramp’s curve was modified to “provide an acceptable ride,” the report says.
However, work orders for metal grinding equipment and an email regarding “bids for shims” from April 2003 indicate that the repairs were good for only a couple years.
“The bid for $20k for the finger plates and shims seems proportionately high,” reads an April 17, 2003, email from ODOT employee Mony Mao to managers.
Information from: The Oregonian, https://www.oregonlive.com
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