Examining the girders that hold up Fords Bridge on the Umqua River in southwest Oregon, state inspectors noticed a gunpowder-like smell -- a telltale sign of metal fatigue. Then they saw stress cracks that ran like veins through the main supports.
It was March 2001, and for the next three weeks, 2,000 big rigs a day were forced off Interstate 5 while construction crews rebuilt the bridge. Many trucks took winding detours around the Cascade Range, adding hundreds of miles to their trips.
Along the West Coast, transportation costs increased by as much as $200 per shipment. California grocers, Oregon oil companies, Washington dairies and lumber mills in the Pacific Northwest all felt the financial pinch. The American Red Cross had to cut back on blood shipments.
Detours and disruptions on Interstate 5 are becoming increasingly common and costly. A vital commercial artery that crosses three states and links three countries, Interstate 5 is outdated, worn out and overwhelmed with traffic along much of its 1,381-mile length.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 09, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Oregon river -- An article in Section A on Monday about Interstate 5 misspelled the name of Oregon's Umpqua River as the Umqua River.
Two inexorable trends are pushing the highway toward ruin: steadily increasing traffic and relentless deterioration of its roadway, ramps, overpasses and bridges, particularly in the Pacific Northwest.
"Every bridge on the 5 in Oregon has the potential for a crisis," said Paul R. Mather, who heads a regional office of the Oregon Department of Transportation.
Transportation planners say congestion drives up shipping costs and consumer prices and discourages tourism, putting a drag on the economies of California, Oregon and Washington.
Built in sections starting in 1947, the interstate links major manufacturing and population centers on the West Coast, from Seattle to San Diego. It is the primary north-south route for trucks ferrying goods to and from Mexico, Canada and the West Coast's six primary seaports.
Interstate 5 is also an important transportation corridor for wood products from Oregon and Washington as well as produce from California's San Joaquin Valley, one of the world's richest agricultural regions.
"You can't look at California and the West Coast without focusing on Interstate 5," said former Caltrans Director Jeff Morales. "It is the backbone of the state. It is the backbone of the region."
During the last 25 years, the number of vehicles has at least doubled on most sections of the highway. Yet apart from a few short stretches, the highway has not been substantially improved or widened.
For years, traffic engineers and planners have examined the border-to-border corridor in a patchwork fashion, repaving a few miles here or adding a lane there.
Now, a new alliance of government officials, planners and transportation experts from California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska is trying to fashion broad solutions. They hope a multi-state approach will generate the political heft needed to secure federal and state funding for comprehensive improvements.
The West Coast Corridor Coalition plans to consider alternative highways, tollways for trucks, improved rail service and better highway management -- including reversible lanes and staggered work hours for commuters. The improvements would cost an estimated $50 billion.
But the effort is late. The West Coast states are far behind others that have banded together to compete for funds, said Steve Erie, a UC San Diego professor who specializes in transportation. An alliance of 14 states on the East Coast began drumming up money for improving Interstate 95 more than a decade ago.
Interstate 5 begins in San Ysidro, the nation's busiest border crossing. There are 24 lanes for northbound motorists, seven for those headed into Mexico. It is the highway's first bottleneck, the result of population growth, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the growing interdependence of Mexico and Southern California.
On weekdays, about 60,000 motorists -- almost double the volume of 25 years ago -- cross the border and head to Interstate 5. Most are commuting.
During morning rush hour, there can be hourlong delays to cross into the United States and more waiting once drivers hit the freeway. In the evening, it's worse. Workers regularly spend up to 90 minutes in stop-and-go traffic returning to Tijuana from Chula Vista, National City and San Diego.
"I'd rather work late, take Highway 805 or go to the gym to avoid the crush," said Mario C. Lopez, a U.S. citizen who lives in Mexico and works in Chula Vista as an aide to Rep. Bob Filner (D-San Diego).
Gary Gallegos, a former Caltrans director who heads the San Diego Assn. of Governments, said efforts are underway to build more gates at the border and improve roads in Mexico to prevent traffic from backing up onto Interstate 5.
"Traffic is expected to double in the next 20 years," Gallegos said. "The question is, how do you get more out of what we have?"