Preliminary study suggests bridge joint might not be cause of crashes on 217 ramp

TIGARD, Ore. -- ODOT is backing off of claims that a raised bridge joint on the ramp from Interstate 5 north to Highway 217 contributed to several crashes on the ramp last month.

KATU News has obtained public documents from ODOT that show the joint has been out of place for years. ODOT is calling the reason why a mystery.

ODOT has replaced smaller 35 mph signs at the entrance of the ramp with new, giant orange signs that are hard not to miss.

Traffic data from Metro, Portland State University and ODOT, however, show drivers going an average of 60 mph on the ramp as recently as last week.

So far, five drivers have filed tort claims against ODOT, asking for ODOT to pay for damages to their cars from this ramp. ODOT is trying to determine if there really is a crash connection.

ODOT spokesman Dave Thompson told KATU News that 55,000 cars drive on the ramp every day because it's a major route to get to the west side of Portland's metro area.

"The engineers are not going to jump to a conclusion. They're going to study it thoroughly to see what the issues are," Thompson said.

ODOT recently had a "friction test" done to determine how slick the ramp is.

Near the joint, results show the road can be as slippery as black ice if conditions are right. Still, Thompson said ODOT doesn't believe that doesn't prove a crash connection.

"The preliminary work says that the bridge joint is not the issue for any crashes," Thompson said.

ODOT crews are looking at everything from sinking pilings, to engineering, to the road's surface, to driver responsibility, trying to figure this out.

"We've shimmed underneath the piers to try to take care of that a couple of times. That's by no means an engineering indication that has caused crashes," said Thompson.

Bridge inspection reports show ODOT has been dealing with this particular bridge joint for over a decade. It's been repaired twice since 2004 when it first moved about an inch.

"There've been less than 100 crashes in the 13 years since the bridge has been open," said Thompson.

He said most of the crashes didn't happen where the joint problem is.

Still, ODOT wants drivers to slow down.

A spokeswoman for Kiewit Construction, the company that built the ramp back in 2001, told KATU News the company stands by its work.

ODOT doesn't have a timeline for finishing its investigation into a possible link between the raised bridge joint and the recent crashes.

"We take people's concerns quite seriously. We want to do the right thing to improve safety," said Thompson.