Thursday, August 25, 2016

Extended hours for back-to-school season

By Andrea E. Petrich

The eastbound US 2 trestle is ready for back-to-school season.

After feedback from commuters earlier this summer, we’ve extended peak shoulder use along the eastbound trestle that runs between Everett and Lake Stevens/Snohomish. Commuters can now use that additional shoulder lane starting at 2 p.m. instead of the previous 3 p.m. Peak shoulder use in that stretch lasts until 7 p.m.

The shoulder along the US 2 trestle will be open to traffic one extra hour during peak travel times.
This request wasn’t granted overnight. Our engineers did a traffic study to make sure the volumes between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. warranted this change. We also checked with our maintenance teams and Washington State Patrol to ensure proper emergency response would be available during that hour.

So, for those of you who drive US 2 eastbound from Interstate 5 – let us know how the change is working.

Why doesn’t WSDOT allow shoulder driving in more areas?

Opening a shoulder to traffic means less time for crews to use the shoulder for maintenance and emergencies.

For example, on SR 522 west of SR 524 this sign has flashing beacons to warn drivers about the upcoming stoplight. Right now, if our signals team needs to replace one of the lights or make another quick repair, they can drop a “Shoulder Work Ahead” sign, have a safety-vehicle in place and pull up a large bucket truck to the sign, fixing the issue in no time. If this shoulder was being used by traffic, they’d need to close a lane to safely fix it.

Shoulder accessibility is important for maintenance and emergencies.

And all those great times when our Incident Response Team quickly gets a stall pushed to the shoulder? That wouldn’t be as easy if there wasn’t a shoulder to clear to.

There are also plenty of engineering considerations when it comes to peak shoulder use. We wouldn’t consider implementing it in stretches where highway segments lack the capacity to safely accommodate the increase farther down the road.  Our engineers make sure there is a logical, sound and strong engineering basis for choosing which stretches peak shoulder use is appropriate for.

Where else is peak shoulder use allowed?

As you might’ve read earlier this month, peak shoulder use will begin on northbound I-405 between SR 527 and I-5/Alderwood next summer.

There are also future plans for peak shoulder use on I-90 between Bellevue and Issaquah and I-5 between Everett and Marysville.

Until those kick in, those of you in Snohomish County, enjoy your extra hour of peak shoulder use on eastbound US 2 this back-to-school season. We appreciate your comments, feedback and suggestions on ways to keep all Washingtonians moving safely and efficiently.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Survival guide to Tacoma weekend lane closures

By Cara Mitchell

Anyone who travels on southbound I-5 through Tacoma knows how congested the freeway can get with four lanes available to drivers. Imagine what would happen if there were only two lanes.

This weekend, you won’t have to imagine, and we know, it’s going to be rough.

Drivers should expect extra congestion on I-5 in Tacoma this weekend due to extensive paving work.

What’s going to be closed?
Let’s start with I-5. Southbound I-5 in Tacoma near Portland Avenue will be reduced to two lanes around the clock from 10 p.m. Friday, Aug. 26 through 5 a.m. Monday, Aug. 29. About 100,000 drivers use this portion of southbound I-5 every day and a large percentage of those vehicles will need to find other ways to travel around the area in order to avoid major backups and delays. The weekend-long lane closure will allow the contractor working on the I-5 M Street to Portland Avenue HOV project to replace nearly 1,200 feet of aging concrete on southbound I-5.

But that’s not all. During the same weekend, State Route 16 will be reduced to two lanes in each direction at the Tacoma Narrows Bridge for paving. Lane reductions on eastbound SR 16 will occur in phases starting at 6 p.m. Friday, Aug. 26. The two westbound SR 16 lanes will be detoured onto the eastbound bridge. That shift will also occur in phases starting at 8 p.m. Friday. The speed limit will be temporarily reduced at the bridge from 60 mph to 35 mph.

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge will be reduced to two lanes in each direction this weekend for paving.

The 24th Street on-ramp to eastbound SR 16 and the westbound SR 16 exit to 24th Street will also be closed, and the Jackson Street on-ramp to westbound SR 16 may also need to be closed. The ramps will be closed at 7 p.m. Friday.

All lanes and ramps will reopen by 5 a.m. Monday.  The same closures on SR 16 will occur again over the weekend of Sept. 9-12 with similar hours.

In order to repave the eastbound SR 16 Tacoma Narrows Bridge, lanes will also need to be closed overnight during the week between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m. starting Monday, Aug. 29 through Thursday, Sept. 1. The westbound bridge will be open to westbound traffic during that time.

Why schedule these closures the same weekend as the JBLM Airshow, the LeMay Car Show and the Tacoma half-marathon?
There’s never a good time for major closures like this, and planning them is a big challenge. We make every effort to avoid as many huge travel weekends as we can, including holidays, and try to avoid big events whenever possible. But we have to balance that with needs of a particular job – dry weather, for example – as well as working around other projects.

Every construction contract has different obligations attached to them. We would have preferred the work on I-5 to occur the weekend of Aug. 19-22 but I-5 through Tacoma was the detour for the full closure of State Route 167 near Pacific that weekend. We also need dry weather to pave and stripe. As we start to push into September, our dry weather days quickly evaporate.  This wasn’t our first choice, but it’s the hand we were dealt. That’s why we are advising drivers to add as much extra time as possible to your trips, go early, and consider eliminating discretionary travel. We love our regional events just as much as you. Go enjoy the air show, fly a kite at Chambers, or cheer on the Sounders in Portland. Be sure to plan extra time into your trip and take an alternative route if you know it. If you haven’t tried carpooling, taking the Sounder Train yet, or riding the bus, now might be a great time.

Pierce Transit is providing bus transportation to the JBLM Airshow from Lakewood Towne Center, the Lakewood Sounder Station or the Tacoma Dome Transit Station. Visit for details.

How can drivers get around Tacoma and avoid backups
We recognize that there are some major events in the area this weekend and we understand both projects will have significant traffic impacts. We are encouraging drivers to…
  • Allow extra time to reach their destination. 
  • Consider delaying or rescheduling discretionary trips. 
  • Travel early in the morning before 9 a.m. or later in the evening after 9 p.m. 
  • Use alternate routes. 
  • Choose an alternative travel mode, such as public transportation (transit, ferry, light rail or commuter rail), bicycling or carpooling.

Taking a ferry is one of many alternate ways around this weekend’s Pierce County work,
but be sure to plan ahead if you want to sail.

Taking a ferry
If you plan on taking the scenic route via a Washington State Ferry to avoid the Tacoma slowdown, expect increased traffic on south end ferry routes. Customers are advised go early or late and avoid midday and afternoon sailings on Seattle/Bremerton and Fauntleroy/Vashon/Southworth routes. Additional travel tips for the ferry system are:
  • If detouring: take early sailings, before 10 a.m. or late sailings after 7 p.m. 
  • Ferries expects wait times of up to three hours during the day and into the early evening on summer weekends, especially for the next two weekends as folks squeeze the last drops out of their summer vacations. 
  • Don’t miss the boat! Plan to arrive at the dock 30-45 minutes before the scheduled sailing because it could take time for people in line to process through the tollbooth. If taking a midday or afternoon ferry, expect wait times of 1-3 hours. 
  • South end ferry routes to use as a detour: Seattle to Bremerton, Fauntleroy to Vashon then Tahlequah to Point Defiance; Fauntleroy to Southworth. Please note that the Point Defiance/Tahlequah route saw long wait times during the pervious air show and we expect similar wait times this year.
  • There is no wait for walk-ons! If it works for you, consider walking on the ferry or riding a bicycle and connecting with transit or a ride from a friend on the other side. 
  • Route map 
  • Seattle/Bremerton 
  • Fauntleroy/Southworth
  • Fauntleroy/Vashon 

Will tolls be collected on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge during construction closures?
Tolls will still be collected for drivers traveling eastbound on SR 16 as normal. Drivers travelling westbound will not be charged tolls. We must ensure that Tacoma Narrows Bridge tolls are generating enough revenue to cover our debt payments. This is achieved by applying tolls fairly and consistently. We do not waive or refund tolls due to collisions, special events, or construction. Similar to a homeowner who needs to make mortgage payments every month no matter what, we must make debt payments to bondholders to pay for the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

All in a weekend’s work: Southbound SR 167 fish culvert work compressed into one time-saving weekend

By Caitlin Morris

Waiting in the airport security line, getting cavities filled, and taking detours around closed highways—all are necessary activities that I’m sure you would prefer to avoid repeating for 30 days in a row. Well, we can’t help you with the airport or the dentist, but we can help with the detour. Our contractor crews working in Algona/Pacific on our SR 167 HOT lane project will save drivers 30 nights of lane closures by condensing their fish passage and paving work into one weekend. Nice!

During the weekend of Aug. 19-22, crews will close a portion of southbound SR 167 around the clock to repave nearly a mile of the highway and complete construction of a new 368-foot-long fish passable culvert.

To minimize impacts to drivers, crews have been building the culvert in stages, moving from east to west. Construction of the eastern half of the culvert began in June, and crews moved traffic around the construction site to avoid inconvenient highway closures. But now, we need to close the road for one last push to complete the culvert.

Southbound SR 167 will be closed Aug. 19-22
for a culvert replacement and paving job.
Closure Details
From 11 p.m. Friday, Aug. 19 to 5 a.m. Monday, Aug. 22, crews will close:
  • All lanes of southbound SR 167 between Ellingson Road and 8th Street East
  • The southbound SR 167 off-ramp to 8th Street East 
The culvert improvements are designed to help fish migration in Jovita Creek. The culvert’s water flow is too low and too fast for fish to swim in, and the culvert’s opening is too high for fish to jump into as they progress upstream. The improvements will help the Chinook salmon, coho salmon, and steelhead trout that use this creek to reach their needed habitat. During the job, workers will excavate enough dirt to fill more than 100 backyard swimming pools and will restore 920 cubic yards of streambed, the equivalent of almost 74,000 party-sized tubs of ice cream.

Closing southbound SR 167 for the culvert work also presents an opportunity to pave one mile of southbound SR 167, ensuring that crews are getting the most out of the highway closure. Crews will use nearly 10,000 tons of asphalt to pave the road, which is about the weight of the Space Needle.

Meanwhile, 18 miles north of our SR 167 closure, it’s the last weekend of work on the I-5 #SouthKingSlowdown.

Southbound I-5 lane reductions from South Boeing Access Road to Interurban Avenue South will begin at 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 19. By 10 p.m. Friday, traffic will be reduced to two lanes through 5 a.m. Monday, Aug. 22.

The off-ramp from southbound I-5 to SR 518 will remain open for drivers traveling to Sea-Tac International Airport and other destinations but if you’re headed to the airport, allow lots of extra time and consider alternate routes like SR 99 or SR 509.

Crews will finish installing this new fish culvert in Jovita Creek during this weekend’s SR 167 southbound closure.

What should drivers do?
While it’s great that we’re reducing the SR 167 closure to one weekend, that still could make this weekend challenging. It’s a good idea to leave early and plan ahead, especially if you’re headed to a special event. You can plan ahead by checking the Seattle and Tacoma traffic pages for updated traffic conditions, and also download WSDOT’s mobile app.

If you must drive through the work areas, follow the signed detour routes (pdf 378 kb). Remember to allow extra time to travel through the work zones or on alternate routes. To help you plan ahead, you can get the most up-to-date details and a full listing of closures by visiting the King County Construction page. You can also follow the hashtag #SouthKingSlowdown on Twitter for updates.

What’s ahead on SR 167?
Crews are on schedule to complete the remaining widening of southbound SR 167 between 37th Street Northwest in Auburn to 8th Street East in Pacific by fall 2016. At that time, the new lane will open to traffic as an HOV lane. Contractor crews plan to install toll equipment by early 2017. When the project is complete, the lane will operate as a HOT lane.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Turning on a ramp meter isn’t as easy as just flipping a switch

By Justin Fujioka

Can the flutter of a butterfly's wings really cause a tornado halfway around the world? Whether or not you believe in the butterfly effect, it's not something we want to risk when turning on a new ramp meter.

Traffic signals on Coal Creek Parkway will be synced to work
in conjunction with the new ramp meters to I-405.
And that's why it has taken us several months to flip the switch on two southbound I-405 ramp meters in Bellevue and Tukwila. After a combination of funding delays, extensive data collection and signal modifications on surface streets, we've got the green light for ramp meters at Interurban Avenue South/SR 181 and at Coal Creek Parkway to be turned on in mid-August.

Ramp meters are used across the country to create an even pace for vehicles entering the highway to improve safety and traffic flow along busy corridors – in this case, southbound I-405. But installing a ramp meter without careful and thoughtful research, consideration and collaboration with local governments could create a negative butterfly effect in the way of increased congestion on other roadways.

Interurban Avenue South/SR 181 on-ramp in Tukwila
We turned off the original ramp meter on the Interurban Avenue South/SR 181 on-ramp to southbound I-405 for a City of Tukwila construction project in 2011, when there was an HOV bypass lane on the ramp and a metered general purpose lane.

A new “No Right Turn on Red” signal will be installed
to assist traffic flow near the I-405 ramp.
At the time, we'd received several comments about the HOV lane being underutilized and traffic in the general purpose lane backing up onto Interurban. The City of Tukwila was also preparing to close the intersection of Southcenter Parkway and Klickitat Drive, where many people leaving the mall access southbound I-5. The planned detour route was the Interurban on-ramp to southbound I-405. A combination of the two lead us to a collaborative decision with the city to turn off the ramp meter and convert the HOV lane to a second general purpose lane for better utilization of the ramp.

The plan at the time was to eventually put up a new ramp meter with two general purpose lanes once the Southcenter/Klickitat intersection reopened. But due to a lack of funding, we weren't able to install a new ramp meter until this past spring. We'll flip the switch on this ramp meter on Monday, Aug. 15.

Coal Creek Parkway on-ramp in Bellevue
The Coal Creek Parkway ramp meter to southbound I-405 was installed in the spring and summer of 2015. Prior to that, King County Metro Transit moved a bus stop from the on-ramp to a nearby park-and-ride, leaving the existing bus pull-out available for general purpose traffic. We took the opportunity to use this space to create a second general purpose lane when we turn on the ramp meter on Wednesday, Aug. 17.

These new I-405 ramp meters will help maintain traffic flow on the interstate.

That second lane will provide more space for vehicles entering southbound I-405 in an area that gets congested during peak commute times. But what if both lanes get backed up? That's what we've been working with the City of Bellevue on over the past year by collecting data at a couple of intersections just upstream of the ramp. The city has been using this research to sync signal timing along Coal Creek Parkway with the new ramp meter.

These new ramp meters become active on Monday, Aug. 15.
While it won't look much different, the city will make some noticeable changes at the southbound I-405 ramps/Coal Creek Parkway intersection. Traffic coming from downtown Bellevue on 118th Avenue Southeast making a right turn onto the ramp will now be signal controlled. A "No Right Turn on Red" sign will be lit up whenever the ramp is being metered and dark during all other times. Previously, the right-turn lane was free-flowing 24/7.

Also, traffic coming from Factoria on Coal Creek Parkway making a left turn onto the ramp will get signal priority at the intersection to utilize the extra space on the ramp and help avoid congestion on Coal Creek.

For the first few weeks of operation, we'll be watching both ramp meters very carefully to see if modifications are needed. We expect drivers to take some time adjusting to the new traffic patterns as well. Both ramp meters will only activate when traffic on southbound I-405 dips below the posted speed limit. Signal timing is no simple task and it takes engineers much time and finesse making sure everything is just right. For many, understanding the science behind it may be just as hard as understanding the butterfly effect.

Two new Pierce County ramp meters activated
In addition to ramp meters being activated in Bellevue and Tukwila, ramp meters are also being activated in Pierce County. Starting Tuesday, Aug. 16, newly installed ramp meters will be activated at the State Route 7 (Pacific Avenue) on-ramps to westbound State Route 512 and at the Steele Street on-ramp to westbound SR 512. These meters will also be carefully monitored to see if modifications to the meter rate are necessary.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Everything you always wanted to know about ferry reservations and added sailings (but were afraid to ask)

By Nicola Zanchi

Ferry reservations and added sailings got you FERRY confused? We're here to help. We operate 22 ferries on 10 routes, and several of those routes require vehicle reservations. With more than 450 sailings per day, reading and understanding the schedule and making reservations can be difficult. Here's some tips for navigating two important ferry functions, reservations and added sailings, as we sail toward the end of summer and into fall.

While fall may be just around the corner, the summer season is still in full swing, and some of the busiest travel weekends are coming up. Here's a refresher on how ferry reservations work.
  • Ferry reservations are advised to guarantee a vehicle (including motorcycles) a spot on Port Townsend/Coupeville, Anacortes/San Juans, and Anacortes/Sidney B.C. routes. All other routes function on a first-come, first-served basis for vehicles spaces, including the San Juan Islands inter-island ferry route.

Routes that require a vehicle reservation

Ferry reservations are released in a tiered system. On average there are between 20-40 reservable spots per vessel, per tier.  At times, most notably in the San Juan Islands, vessels load reserved spaces for different stops on the same sailing, so the number of spots available is dependent on the number of stops the vessel is making.
  • Let's use an image to illustrate the tiered system:
    1. Two months before the sailing season: 30 percent of car reservations are released
    2. Two weeks before the sailing date: 30 percent of car reservations are released
    3. Two days before the sailing date: 30 percent of car reservations are released
    *The final 10 percent of every sailing is held open for emergency and stand-by vehicles

  • Vehicles may ride stand-by, but in the summer months at peak travel times (12:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. Thurs- Sunday), riding stand-by on reservable routes can be risky. Only 10 percent of every reservable sailing is held open for emergency and stand-by vehicles.
  • Ferry reservations can be made online or over the phone. We recommend making reservations online, as to avoid phone wait times.
    • Call Center Hours: 5 a.m. until 8:15 p.m., 7 days a week
    • Phone: 206-464-6400; Toll-Free: 1-888-808-7977

Tips & Tricks
Here are a few tips and tricks for the reservation "what-ifs?"
  • No reservations available and riding stand-by?
    In addition to the 10 percent of stand-by space on each sailing, more stand-by space is always available on sailings when drivers don't use their reservations or if they travel at a different time. The best time to ride stand-by is before 10:30 a.m. While you may not always get on the sailing of your choice, traveling stand-by is an option when you need to travel at the last minute or can't make a reservation.
  • Don't forget the 30-minute rule!
    Whether you have a reservation or not, if you're in a car or a motorcycle you must be through the tollbooth 30 minutes before the vessel departure time. This allows us time to load the vessels safely. If you are not through the tollbooth 30 minutes prior, your reservation will be forfeited and you will be directed to the stand-by lane.
  • Sailing cancelled?
    We hope to never cancel sailings, but in the event that it happens, you will be given the option to remain at the terminal and will have priority boarding for the next sailing. If the cancellation happens in advance, you will be contacted by an information agent to rebook your travel.
  • If you can, ditch the car!
    Reservations are never required if you walk-on or bike-on the ferry.  Many terminals offer parking areas, including Anacortes, your gateway to the San Juan Islands.

Added sailings
Summer is also a popular season for professional sports, fairs and festivals, and other events. At times, we add sailings to accommodate passengers.  Our decision to add sailings is highly dependent on budget, the current sailing schedule, staffing, and demand. To illustrate this decision making, here are two examples of added sailings:
  • Mariners games
    It has become popular for us to add an 11:30 p.m. sailing from Seattle to Bremerton for Mariners games because of the long gap between the daily 10:30 p.m. and 12:50 a.m. sailings. If most Friday and Saturday games start at 7:10 p.m. and last about three hours, fans are unable to reach the 10:30 p.m. sailing so we add extra sailings to accommodate the gap in the regularly scheduled sailings. Similar added sailing also occur for some concerts and other sporting events.

    A time gap in the Seattle/Bremerton schedule prompts
    us to sometimes add an extra sailing.

    We get creative to let people know about added sailings.

  • Orcas Island's Doe Bay Festival
    Doe Bay Festival is a four-day grass roots music festival on Orcas Island in early August and brings thousands of visitors to the island. We mitigate that demand by adding sailings on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday of the festival weekend. This principle also applies to added sailings for our busy holidays such as Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, New Year's, and Fourth of July.

    We send out alerts to let people know about extra sailings for holidays.

Final tips for a successful ferry ride:

Make a vehicle reservation to the San Juan Islands, Sidney, BC or Port Townsend/Coupeville.