One lane wasn’t enough to accommodate northbound Memorial Day traffic on Interstate 5, causing a hours-long traffic jam over 20 miles in North County.
Because of a construction project, the Oregon Department of Transportation expected motorists to experience 20- to 30-minute delays and traffic to back up for about 5 miles.
Instead, northbound vehicles were stacked up back to Rice Hill, and drivers suffered delays of up to 2½ hours, ODOT spokesman Dan Latham said.
“Had we known we were looking at that kind of delay, we would have done things differently,” said Latham, who called the delays “unacceptable” and apologized to motorists.
“We’re going to look at everything we did leading up to the weekend and make some changes so it doesn’t happen again,” he said.
ODOT issued an alert shortly after 6:30 p.m. Monday warning northbound motorists to expect long delays between Mileposts 150 and 170. By then, motorists were idling away their holiday.
The traffic jam was concentrated in the northbound lane. Southbound motorist Norline Wilson of Yoncalla looked over and saw drivers going the other way at a dead stop.
“You can’t believe the traffic jam last night. It was 20 miles of backup,” the 75-year-old said today. “I’ve never seen anything in my whole life like what those people had to go through going north.”
Yoncalla resident Richard Lymath said he was driving south on I-5 around 2:30 p.m. when he saw the northbound congestion.
“It was just plugged,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it that bad.”
In the evening, ODOT also advised holiday travelers returning from the coast to avoid the area. Eastbound motorists on Highway 38 were backing up as they approached I-5 through Drain.
Congestion swelled in Drain as drivers sought to bypass the standstill on I-5.
“A lot of trucks came through Drain,” town resident Charles Davis said. “It was jammed up.”
Drain resident Jim McMichael said he went to a restaurant in town and had to battle the traffic to get home.
“It was a zoo,” he said. “It was horrible. The cars kept coming and coming. I wondered where all the freight trucks came from.”
ODOT began an $18.5 million project one month ago to resurface I-5 between Exits 162 and 169, a section that straddles the border between Douglas and Lane counties.
North County residents say they’ve faced some delays driving north toward Lane County, though not always.
“We just go and keep our fingers crossed,” Drain resident John Pender said. “Sometimes there’s almost no effect at all.”
A weekday trip went fine, but a Sunday drive was “stop and go for 5 or 6 miles. It was quite an extended period of slow movement,” he said.
The Fourth of July will fall on a Friday, and ODOT will ask travelers ahead of time to take an alternate route or avoid driving through the area at busy times, Latham said.
ODOT will advise travelers to return from the coast via Highway 126 between Florence and Eugene.
“That will help relieve some of the pressure we felt yesterday,” Latham said.
Because of the construction, opening another lane is not an option until the project is completed, which won’t be until at least August, he said.
The traffic jam was compounded by northbound motorists taking Highway 38 to try to merge onto I-5 near Milepost 162, just where the interstate dropped to one lane, Latham said.
Side roads became busy as drivers searched for detours.
Yoncalla resident Kathleen Bean drove to Cottage Grove in the morning and returned to Yoncalla on a back road. A drastic increase in traffic made her think there had been a bad accident on I-5, she said.
“Cars with boats kept passing us, and there’s usually no traffic at all on it,” she said.
Oregon State Police Lt. Doug Ladd said there were no major accidents, just a few fender benders, from the backup.
• Reporter Betsy Swanback can be reached at 541-957-4209 or email@example.com.