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Traffic Backups on Northbound I-5 from Lake Samish - Into First Week of 2017

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Final post to this article - Wed, Jan 4 at 4 pm

The state highway spokes person has said that the northbound lanes of I-5 are now open. The right lane might be closed for a few minutes a few times in the next week as crews move equipment in and out from behind the concrete barricades next to the highway. They continue to work installing long bolts in the rock face above the highway to hold the rock face in place. For all of us in Bellingham, we can resume using I-5 north and not be concerned with delays.

A final note to readers who may wonder at all the attention to this bit of highway. Bellingham is barely connected to the world to our south - to Seattle and the rest of the state. The 10 or so miles from Bellingham south is the only place where the mountains meet the water. Chuckanut Mountain is a real barrier, with I-5 snaking through it. Our old highway is Samish Way and it is a narrow two lane old highway - that connects to I-5 just 4 miles south of Bellingham. Our third way out is Chuckanut Drive which has frequent rockfalls in the winter and most of us avoid it in bad weather. Thus I-5 is essential to us.

Below posted on Mon, Jan 2 at 9 am

Both lanes of I-5 northbound are fully open this morning past the rock slide area. I drove the route this morning and State highway crews are working on the rock face, presumably installing tie down bolts to the rock, but the two lanes of north bound are fully open. There were no equipment indications that the right lane might be shut down - no orange striped barrels on the side of the road. So maybe the highway is back to normal two lanes of traffic. We will find out and update here.

Below posted Fri, Dec 30 at 4:20 pm

Interstate 5, between the Lake Samish exit 246 and the first Bellingham exit 250, will continue to have the northbound right lane closed 7 am to 5 pm each day through the new year and into the first week of January, 2017. The northbound left lane should continue to be open, but traffic does back up during normal traffic times for a couple miles at least. See photos taken today, Dec 30, about 2 pm from exit 246 overpass. The traffic backup today during normal traffic was longer than 2 miles, stretching well down Lake Samish.

Locals of the Bellingham area know well the easy exit 246 onto the old Samish Way highway that leads straight into Bellingham and to either the Samish Way I-5 entrance 252, or to continue straight into Bellingham along Samish. The time to travel the slower old highway may well be offset by time lost sitting in a slow moving line of cars past the work zone. One might even exit at Nulle Road, exit 242, turn left under the freeway, and then an immediate right onto Lake Samish Drive. This will take you alongside I-5 up to the overpass to Old Samish Drive.

What happened?

Just north of mile 248, two miles north of Lake Samish, a Washington Department of Transportation (WDOT) inspector Dave on routine duty Tuesday afternoon, December 20, noticed new small rocks, dirt and some twisted tree limbs behind the concrete barricades that protect the roadway from falling debris. He called an experienced Maintenance Lead guy named Joe (yep, Joe) who drove up and looked at it with Dave. They decided it was real and immediately shut down the right lane, notified WDOT in Olympia and they sent up a full team. All on Tuesday evening. The right lane stayed closed for days.

Wednesday morning, work began and they realized there was a large chunk of rock that had separated from one of the sandstone layers that slant down towards the highway. Over the next days they got special equipment up to the site and on Saturday, Dec 24, Christmas Eve, they closed the entire northbound highway all day from Lake Samish to Bellingham. They brought the loose rock down onto the highway, broke it in to smaller chunks and trucked it away. You can view a 1 minute video of the actual nudging of the huge rock that WDOT posted on YouTube.

Since then, the highway crews have been cleaning up the area and will spend the next week or so drilling and installing steel rods to tie the rock slope to secure under layers. Much of the two miles of this stretch of the highway has long rods holding the rock slopes and cliffs in place.

A common question is why was the highway built along these cliffs in the first place. The real answer may require some serious research back in Washington DC. In the 1960s, the federal government decided to cut through the valley of Chuckanut Creek - where the original Old Samish Way highway was located down along the creek. The Feds ignored geologists’ advice that the sloping sandstone layers would slide down on the highway if they cut through the layers. The freeway was blasted through the hillsides, creating the cliffs. The better route would have been to follow the old Samish Way in a pretty straight line up the hill from Lake Samish and past Lake Padden - the present Old 99 highway, or Samish Way.

After the highway opened in the 1960s, rock slides closed the highway several times. Eventually in the 1970s, the uphill cliff was cut back further and tied together with the long steel rods. But the problem will never end. That cut will continue to slide until it is all gone. When there is winter rain with freezing, the rock layers get separated by the expansion of freezing water into ice and … well, swoosh.

The Feds choose the wrong path for the highway and now it is our WDOT that has the job of keeping it safe and open. We thank the alert and professional actions of Dave and Joe, and the immediate response of our state highway department for preventing what could have been - probably would have been - tragedy. Over the decades on rainy winter days, I occasionally take north bound exit 246 and drive a bit slower but safer into Bellingham on the pleasant old Samish Way.

This article will be updated over the next week. No news means the right lane is still closed from 7 am till 5 pm.

About John Servais

Writer • Fairhaven, Washington USA • Member since Feb 26, 2008

John started Northwest Citizen in 1995 to inform fellow citizens of serious local political issues that the Bellingham Herald was ignoring. With the help of donors from the beginning, he has [...]

Comments by Readers

John Niles

Dec 31, 2016

Two lanes were free and clear driving north through that stretch Friday evening December 30, 10:30 pm.  Only the right-hand shoulder was barricaded.

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