Friday, June 24, 2016

To switch or not to switch

By Justin Fujioka

Why am I sitting in a backup while the other direction has the express lanes open with free flowing traffic? I’m sure this has gone through the minds of many of you at some point – including me.

While it’s not exactly in their job description, our traffic engineers must sometimes be performers in a careful balancing act – which direction will the express lanes relieve the most congestion from Seattle’s entire transportation system.
The key phrase here when it comes to Thursday evening’s rainy and rough commute across Lake Washington is “entire transportation system.”

Every weekday, the I-90 express lanes open eastbound at 2 p.m. because our traffic data shows much more traffic heads out of Seattle than into town from mid-afternoon to late evening. And by 5:30 p.m. Thursday, traffic going east across Lake Washington was extra heavy because of a collision that blocked the left lane of eastbound SR 520 near Montlake Boulevard.

So when a jackknifed semi crashed just before 6 p.m. and blocked the two right lanes of westbound I-90 in the Mt. Baker Tunnel, a difficult choice had to be made: To switch or not to switch.
Switching the I-90 express lanes takes at least an hour – and even longer when there is congestion. That’s because our crews have to sit in traffic to get to the express lanes gates to close them. Crews must then check the lanes to confirm that all traffic has cleared and that all signage and gates are in place.

Closing the express lanes during the peak of the commute would have likely led to major eastbound congestion that would back up onto I-5 in Seattle. Keep in mind, eastbound SR 520 traffic was already hosed because of the crash near Montlake and already spilling onto I-5. Seattle to Bellevue travel times on SR 520 peaked near 70 minutes.
Shortly before 7 p.m., engineers addressed “the switch” again. One lane of eastbound SR 520 was still blocked because the tow truck that needed to clear a vehicle was also stuck in eastbound traffic. Of course, westbound traffic was brutal as well, with Bellevue to Seattle travel times on I-90 at close to 90 minutes.

Crews on scene at the I-90 semi collision reported to our Transportation Management Center that all that was needed was for tow to arrive and estimated a clearing time at one hour. Remember, one hour is also the minimum time it takes to switch the express lanes. That means one hour with no traffic in the I-90 express lanes. It would’ve been a disservice to thousands of additional vehicles going eastbound. All lanes reopened just after 8 p.m.

Our main job is to keep traffic moving safely on all of our highways. And that’s why a decision was made to not switch the I-90 express lanes, at the risk of creating additional backups on other corridors in our transportation system.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Another work-zone crash highlights need to slow down, focus

By Mike Allende

Road crews on Interstate 5 had a bad scare Wednesday night, June 22 in a scene that's becoming all too common in our work zones.

A contractor crew was setting up traffic control devices on a paving project north of Stanwood. At 8:40 p.m., a pickup slammed into a truck mounted attenuator on the project. The crew escaped major injury, but workers were so shaken by the crash – and driver injuries – that work was cancelled for the night.

Thankfully our attenuator truck did its job during a Wednesday work-zone crash, protecting the road crew from serious injury.

The crash also blocked all of northbound I-5 for about one hour and caused a significant backup headed into Mt. Vernon.

Thankfully the TMA – a giant, accordion-like buffer between work crews and drivers -- did its job and shielded the workers. But even with this safety device two people were sent to the hospital: the attenuator driver and the pickup driver, who was transported by emergency helicopter. Please join us in keeping both drivers in your thoughts.

The driver of this vehicle ran into our attenuator truck in a work zone Wednesday night. In 96 percent of Washington
work zone crashes, the driver, passenger or nearby pedestrians are injured rather than workers.

We wish this was a rare occurrence, but the danger in our work zones is very real. We average 916 work zone injuries a year on state roads. In 2015, nine people died in Washington work zone crashes. And most often, it isn't the workers who are at the most risk. The fact is, 96 percent of people hurt in work zone crashes in our state are drivers, their passengers or passing pedestrians.

It's vital for drivers to slow down and be focused on the road at all times -- for the safety of highway workers but also for themselves and their fellow travelers.

The driver of the vehicle involved in Wednesday’s work zone collision had to be airlifted to the hospital with serious injuries.

In this case, our attenuator truck did its job, taking the hit so that our workers didn't. But it doesn't always work out that way, as Greg King's story told us. So please, for your sake and those of highway workers, slow down and always be cautious and focused around work zones. We need your help to keep everyone in our work zones safe.

Southbound I-5 lane reductions will create big backups in July, August

By Tom Pearce

It’s no surprise that whenever we have to take away lanes on a roadway, traffic will back up and there will be delays. We’ve looked at what the backups are going to be when we reduce southbound I-5 to two lanes for five weekends: three in July in SeaTac and Des Moines and two in August in Tukwila.

It’s going to be rough during the #SouthKingSlowdown, even with drivers using alternate routes like I-405 and state routes 99, 167 and 509. We will need everyone’s help to try to keep congestion from turning from a manageable backup to a nightmare weekend drive.
State routes 99, 167 and 509 or I-405 can help
you get around the #SouthKingSlowdown

What to expect
We are going to see major traffic challenges each of these weekends, with backups potentially reaching several miles. Drivers should allow at least an extra hour of travel time between Seattle and the city of SeaTac between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. We also expect additional congestion on the alternate routes.

These estimates are based on 35 percent of drivers doing something different – delaying trips, using transit, carpools or vanpools or using other highways. That’s what we often see for a project like this. If more drivers use alternatives, backups and delays will be shorter, if not, well, we’ll see longer delays.

What can you do?
If you use southbound I-5 between Seattle and south King County, it’s time to start planning, especially if you’re going somewhere and you have to be on time – say, Sea-Tac International Airport. Whether you’re picking up someone or heading out on vacation yourself, being late to the airport can be a problem.

Here are some tips:
  • Allow plenty of time. Check WSDOT’s Mobile app and traffic maps. Follow @wsdot_traffic on Twitter.
  • Plan to use alternate routes like SR 99 or SR 509.
  • Take transit – Link light rail provides a more predictable trip than I-5 likely will on these weekends.

If your destination is somewhere other than the airport, these options can work as well. Also consider adjusting the time you travel (early or late are usually better bets), or stay close to home during the closures when possible.

There are other alternate routes to avoid southbound I-5 as well. From Renton you can go south on SR 167 and SR 99 works for people in Tukwila. In either case you can rejoin I-5 using either SR 516 or SR 18.

The bottom line is you need to plan ahead. We understand this is going to be hard on a lot of drivers, but this work must be done. I-5 is 50 years old; it was designed for 25 years. A few weekends of pain now will result in decades of a functional interstate.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Let us help you navigate your way around construction east of I-90 this summer

By Meagan Lott

Summer in the Pacific Northwest is always pretty spectacular with fantastic places to explore and an abundance of special events. But it also creates a challenging dilemma for us.

We know people love to take to our highways this time of year, with plenty traveling across I-90 on road trips. At the same time, so much of our road work has to be done during those few months when we can be pretty sure we're going to get dry weather. Accommodating both of those is a very difficult task.

Travel across I-90 from the summit of Snoqualmie Pass to Vantage is going to be particularly tricky this summer, due to a number of projects that will ultimately improve travel for everyone. In the meantime, we want to help you prepare with tips on planning and timing to help avoid significant congestion.

Heavy construction activity across I-90 this summer will lead to delays, so be sure to plan ahead to avoid as much congestion as possible.

Why is there so much construction this summer?
I-90 is the main east-west transportation corridor in our state with more than 27,000 vehicles traveling over it every day, and that number doubles on holidays and summer weekends. With that much traffic, the road is in rough shape and there are a number of areas that need to be repaired. Much of that work requires dry pavement and work conditions to get done.

What's with the backups and congestion?
In order to repave, build and replace lanes we have to build detours to divert traffic around the work zones. These detours are built before the actual project starts and stay in place until the project is finished. Unfortunately, there are going to be areas where traffic backs up because we are taking traffic from two lanes to a single lane or making lanes and shoulders smaller. We try to keep two lanes of traffic open in the busiest direction over the weekend. For example, eastbound is busiest on Fridays so we try to keep two lanes open, but may only have one open westbound, and then reverse it on Sundays.

Slow spots and tips
The heaviest congestion we're seeing is westbound near Cle Elum from mileposts 84 to 93, where we're repaving the lanes and have to divert traffic around the area via a single-lane detour. You can avoid these backups by using an alternate route via US 97 to SR 10.

Another tough spot is the Vantage Bridge, which is down to a single eastbound lane until the end of summer due to a bridge painting job (painting a bridge extends its life by preventing rust). Plan on lots of extra time to get through this area.

Other spots of construction and delays include:
  • The Summit of Snoqualmie Pass east near Keechelus Lake (mileposts 54-62)
  • Easton area (mileposts 67-70)
  • Ellensburg area (mileposts 106-122)

Oh, and don't forget that there is also rock blasting that will close Snoqualmie Pass during some weeknights, usually for about an hour, throughout the summer. This is part of our major project to improve travel and safety across I-90.

Many work zones have reduced highways to one lane or lead to detours. Be sure to avoid all signs and be safe in work zones.

Is anyone working around here?
It can be frustrating to crawl through a work zone and not see anyone working. We get it. In most cases, while work schedules may vary, it is often unrealistic to remove work zones for short periods of time and then reestablish them. For example, with the Vantage Bridge, painting doesn't happen on weekends but the work zone must stay in place. The barrier separating the eastbound lanes and associated re-striping work takes several days to remove/install, which could add more time and cost to the project. Additionally, the contractor needs to be able to access the work area 24/7 because if there was a high-wind situation, the containment system needs to be removed immediately so the bridge doesn't get overloaded and damaged. That can only be done safely if the work zone barriers are always in place.

Major events
There are a few major events coming up that will draw heavier-than-normal traffic across I-90. Be sure to plan ahead for them:
  • Paradiso Festival at the Gorge (June 24-25)
  • Spokane Hoopfest (June 25-26)
  • Fourth of July weekend (July 1-4)
  • Watershed Festival at the Gorge (July 28-31 and Aug. 4-7)
  • Labor Day weekend/Dave Mathews Band at the Gorge (Sept. 1-5)

What can you do to help?

Planning ahead is one of the best things a traveler can do to help avoid congestion. If you know what is out there, you can better time your trips – when possible – to avoid backups or heavy congestion. Going early or later helps, and if alternate routes are available, they can be good ideas. Also, congestion is exacerbated by collisions. We've seen regular I-90 backups become huge just because of a crash. So please, pay attention on the road, focus, work together and be patient. And when you're near work zones, please be sure to slow down (most have reduced speed limits), give them room to work and be extra alert around them.

We’re working to help pollinators in our state – here’s how you can help too

By Barbara LaBoe

You've seen our road crews mowing or cutting brush along the roadway. But did you know they also work to help bees and butterflies?

Our planting guidelines and some new mowing policies are designed to provide better habitat for the pollinators – animals or insects that transfer pollen from plant to plant. Pollinators are crucial to plant fertilization and help support our state's $49 billion food and agricultural industry. Today marks the start of National Pollinator Week, so we thought we'd share some of our pollinator-friendly work.

Why is WSDOT in the bee and butterfly business? With 100,000 acres of non-paved highway right of way spread across the state we're perfectly positioned to help improve pollinator habitat. Such work also fits into our strategic plan goal of environmental stewardship. You certainly don't need to have wings to appreciate protecting and improving the environment.

In addition to pavement and structures, we also work to improve habitat for pollinators like bees and butterflies –
including new mowing standards and landscaping reccomendations. With more than 100,000 acres,
we’re in a unique position to help support pollinators statewide.

New mowing policy
You'll soon be seeing some differences in medians and other wide areas in the highway right-of-way – changes that also help pollinators thrive.

The integrated vegetation management approach started last year means we're leaving more land in a "natural" state instead of the routine mowing of years past. The overall goal is to create meadows and encourage native plant species, but it also means in some areas we'll leave the Scotch Broom and blackberry and thistle, which pollinators love. The back to nature approach will be applied in our wider right of ways – areas beyond 15 to 20 feet from the pavement edge. As always, we'll continue to mow along roadway edge for safety and sight-line purposes.  But where we have room, the more natural setting will provide pollinators with sources of nectar, pollen, larval host plants and nesting locations.

It's not all about pollinators though. The benefits to reduced mowing also include:
  • Fuel and equipment cost savings – estimated at $550,000 annually
  • Reducing diesel fuel usage by 2,500 gallons a year
  • An annual reduction in carbon emissions of 23 metric tons a year

Planting Policies
We also think of pollinators when deciding what types of plants to use in our landscape restoration projects.

We already plant native vegetation, including flowering, native woody shrubs, on our roadsides after construction projects. In the past, we haven't focused on bloom periods or planting each species in larger masses for pollinators. Now, we've begun adding a series of plants that bloom at different times, to give pollinators a more consistent source of nectar and pollen across an entire growing season. We're also adding some plants in clumps, which pollinators prefer.

We're including a range of flowering plants along our roadways and landscaping projects to ensure there's something blooming
throughout the entire growing season. This helps provide pollinators with a consistent source of pollen and nectar.

Our roadside policy, which includes no pesticide use other than the selective use of herbicides, gives preference to long-lived native plant species that can compete against or exclude weeds and grow with minimal maintenance. We also leave other habitat features, such as logs and snags, in place for native bees and birds.

Going forward we're working to identify future pollinator habitat preservation and restoration sites and have developed pollinator-friendly guidance for landscape architects to use when designing restoration and migration sites.

You can help
Pollinator Week isn't just for state agencies. According to the Pollinator Partnership, here are simple steps you take in your own backyard to help bees, butterflies and beetles thrive:
  • Reduce your impact: reduce or eliminate use of insecticides, increase green spaces, and minimize urbanization.
  • Plant for pollinators.
    • Create pollinator-friendly habitat with native flowering plants that supply pollinators with nectar, pollen and homes. Use the BeeSmart pollinator app to find bee-friendly plants for your area.
    • Design your garden with a continuous succession of plants flowering from spring through fall; gradually replace lawn grass with flower beds.
    • Plant native to your region using plants that provide nectar for adults plus food for insect larvae, such as milkweed for monarchs.
    • Select old-fashioned varieties of flowers whenever possible because breeding has caused some modern blooms to lose their fragrance and/or the nectar and pollen needed by pollinators.
  • Install 'houses' for native bees: use wood blocks with holes or maintain small open patches of soil and mud.
  • Supply water for all wildlife. A dripping faucet or a suspended milk carton with a pinhole in the bottom is sufficient for some insects. Other wildlife need a small container of water that allows for easy access for drinking