The I-90 snowshed gone, so now what?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

By Meagan McFadden

It took less than 48 hours to remove the snowshed, which is a lot faster than we originally thought it would take. So now you’re probably wondering why is I-90 still down to a single lane in each direction? Well there is still a lot of work to do. Removing the snowshed was just one piece; the other piece includes building detours, which is a lot like building a brand new roadway, but we only get three weeks.  We have to excavate material, haul in crushed rock, lay down asphalt and stripe the lanes. Closing a lane in each direction gives us more room to build the detours. Working between a rock and a lake creates a pretty confined work area.

We know I-90 is a major east-west transportation corridor in our state and that’s why we chose to do this work in April when traffic volumes are at their lowest and the weather is typically willing to cooperate. Unfortunately, construction doesn’t always take a holiday and this weekend is a good example. However, we are trying to limit the delays by opening two lanes eastbound on Friday and two lanes westbound on Sunday. If you have plans to travel this weekend and you want to avoid major delays, travel before 8 a.m. or wait until after 8 p.m. You can also check out our travel graphs online. You can also take another route like US 12 over White Pass or US 2 over Stevens Pass.

The good news, all lanes will be open by April 25. Construction will still be going on and you will run into some delays and of course closures at night for rock blasting. So make your trips a little easier this summer and plan ahead by using our tools:

Tips from the Incident Response Team

For an inside look at the life of IRT, follow #goIRT as @wsdot_traffic live tweets from the road between 6 to 10 a.m. Friday, April 18.
By Mike Allende

We’ve been known to refer to our Incident Response Team as “our super heroes.” It’s easy to see why. Whether it’s a flat tire, a major collision or a mattress in the middle of the freeway, our IRT workers always seem to be ready to help get things cleared and traffic moving again.

I recently had a chance to spend some time with IRT member John Perez and he insists they aren’t super heroes. They’re out there because they want to help people, he said, and they appreciate that most people are happy to see them arrive on the scene.

IRT is always ready to push a disabled vehicle off
the highway and get traffic moving.
If you’ve driven our highways long enough, there’s a good chance you’ve gotten assistance from IRT. Maybe you need a gallon of gas to make it to the filling station. Maybe you were shaken up by a fender-bender in the middle of Interstate 5. As the “Morning Guy” on our WSDOT Traffic Twitter account, I have the pleasure of watching IRT every morning, zipping around our highways and trying to keep traffic moving as steadily and safely as possible.

I also get to field and send on Twitter comments from motorists, like “I’m sure IRT has that cleared up by now. Great Seattle resource, they are awesome,” and “The IRT folks are indeed super heroes.”

IRT heads towards a car fire to help keep traffic safely away.
IRT works closely with the Washington State Patrol to clear the highway as quickly and safely as possible in order to minimize congestion and enhance motorist and responder safety. That often means stepping out into fast-moving traffic with nothing protecting them except a helmet. With Work Zone Awareness Week just behind us, I thought a few tips from IRT about how you can help them help you might be helpful.

John, who handles incident response primarily on State Route 520, said drivers should stay in their car and stay strapped in until help arrives, because it’s going to be safer inside the vehicle. Be sure to call 911 just to be sure help is on the way.

One of the main challenges of responding to a blocking situation is that traffic around the stall or collision often doesn’t slow down. So…slow down and give our team a chance to work. If you want lanes to reopen, give IRT space and let them do their job so they can get traffic back moving again.

IRT has to handle many jobs, including picking
up someone’s lost laundry.
If possible, it’s always a great idea to drive your car out of traffic, either to the shoulder, gore point or exit off the highway and wait there for help to arrive. Sometimes a driver simply needs someone (IRT or the State Patrol) to tell them it’s OK to move, or they need some help guiding them to safety.

Sometimes a car is stuck and needs a push. John said there are times when a driver does not want an IRT truck to push the car to the side for fear of damage, but that shouldn’t be a worry. Our IRT trucks have a layer of Teflon on the front that they use to push a car to the shoulder or gore point. The most damage is likely to be a black smudge that can be wiped off. Trust our IRT, listen to their instructions, put the car in neutral (don’t hit the brakes!) and you and your car will be fine.

Who does the Army call when it needs help? Mighty IRT!
Running out of gas on the freeway can be embarrassing. But remember, IRT is only interested in getting you and traffic back moving, not to judge or lecture. So be up front about what’s going on so IRT can get things cleared quickly.

Collisions and stalls happen on our highways. There’s no real way around it. But we’re lucky to have our outstanding IRT ready to go when trouble calls. Follow their tips and give them some space, and they can help keep our highways moving as smoothly as possible. Oh, and don’t forget to add a “Thank you.” Even super heroes appreciate that.


Harnessing water pressure to breakup boulders

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

By Doug Adamson

The power of water in the form of torrential rain can bring mammoth-sized boulders down onto state highways. The power of water can also be used to help get rid of them.

Sometimes, boulders that come down hillsides are too big to lift, even with an excavator. Maintenance crews then have to break apart large boulders using jackhammers, which leads to traffic delays. Explosives could be used, but they pose additional risks.

Enter the Boulder Buster™ - a portable rock-smashing tool that’s slightly bigger than a shoe box and uses pressurized water to break up or ‘blast’ large boulders.

But the ‘blast’ is not what you might think. Forget about Hollywood explosions. There are no giant booms, fireballs or flying debris. That’s the benefit.

Instead, the process produces a muffled ‘poof’ that might not even startle a dog, let alone the people who live nearby. The non-detonating rock-breaking tool – which uses just a bit of gunpowder and water pressure - breaks a rock open like an egg. A heavy plastic cover limits flying debris.

This tool can be safely used near pipes. It also is safe to use near structures and much safer overall when compared to something like dynamite.

Much safer compared to dynamite, the Boulder Buster™ breaks
up boulders with a muffled ‘poof.’
During a recent training session on a windswept State Route 112 in Clallam County, maintenance staff took advantage of a Boulder Buster™ training session to clear the roadway shoulder of several big boulders that had come down in a recent slide. Maintenance crews who took part in the training exercise became qualified to teach others at our agency how to safely use the Buster.

After the rock-busting session was complete, the remnants of the boulders were used as fill for another project.

So, how does it work?

First, we drill a hole about 75 percent through the boulder. Then, we pour the “secret ingredient” – water – into the hole.
Pouring water into the breech body
Next, we place the “breech body” inside the hole. It’s similar to a cast iron vase that has no bottom. A heavy plastic cover, similar to an industrial-sized door mat, then goes over the breech body, followed by a single shotgun shell-sized cartridge.

A representative from Boulder Buster™ leading the training.
A metal top that works as the firing mechanism is screwed to the top of the boulder. We then attach a lanyard, go a safe distance away and pull once on the “trigger” – a rope.

The boulder busting aftermath.
With the telltale ‘poof,’ the boulder breaks apart.

Pass clearing continues on North Cascades Highway

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

By Jeff Adamson

They’re back…Pink Floyd and his family of avalanche safety flamingos. Yes, they ARE cute, but they have an important duty.

Pink Floyd pointing out
work zone hazards.

The flamingos are eye-catching tools that point out hazardous zones to the snow removal teams. They’re reminders to always have your “avalanche eyes” open for chutes, debris, another work crew and other hazards. Now if we could only agree on which song to go with our mascot...

East side update

On Monday, April 7, Pink Floyd joined the east side snow removal effort on SR 20 – North Cascades Highway as the team’s avalanche training refresher at Silver Star Gate kicked off the second week of this massive snow removal project . Then it was off to begin clearing just above Lone Fir Campground.

While the maintenance crew pushed and blew snow from SR 20, the avalanche team climbed to the 6,200-foot-level up Liberty Bell Mountain.
Snow blower at Lone Fir Campground.

Spring’s rising temperatures can trigger snow slides below – a major hazard for crews. The avalanche control team dug a snow pit and assessed the Liberty Bell Mountain zone to determine which layers of snow might separate and slide. It tells them what the avalanche potential is and what kind of snow movement to look for when the maintenance crew progresses into the giant Liberty Bell avalanche zone.

In years past, the avalanche control team doesn't join the clearing effort until the east side maintenance crew reaches Cutthroat Ridge in the second or third week. The zone has 12 active chutes.  This year, the avalanche team has been on site monitoring unstable slopes since week one. Most of the winter’s snowfall didn't start falling until mid-February so what’s on the slopes isn't as stable as snow that’s spent all winter compacting on itself.

A second bulldozer joined the east side clearing effort.
Last week, the two teams joined to take on Cutthroat Ridge and by week’s end, they had cleared through Cutthroat Ridge avalanche chute 8 at milepost 164.5.  Think of a layer cake. A snow blower can handle six-feet or so of snow no problem. In an avalanche zone, a snow slide can be 10 times that height and as wide as a football field.

The solution is to cut the top layer off (anything over 6 or 8 feet) and the tool of choice is a bulldozer or two. Through the Cutthroat zone, a D-6 caterpillar worked the top of the slide and when its work was done, the maintenance crew’s excavator, snow blower and a grader cleared the snow down to the pavement.
When they get to the end of the Cutthroat zone, a larger D-8 cat we lease from a local logging company joins the effort to cut down the top layer of the more than 30-foot-deep slides in the Liberty Bell Mountain zone.

West side update

Eastbound SR 20 clearing continued on Monday, April 7, just beyond the Canyon Creek Trail.
Snow blower on SR 20
just below Easy Pass.

By the end of week two, the two-man team had eastbound lanes cleared and widened to about three miles short of Swamp Creek. The less-than-a-foot snow depth increased to 4 feet as they worked towards Rainy Pass. Next, the team will be moving forward towards Easy Pass.

Here are some short answers to questions you might have:
  • The closure gates stay closed until the entire highway is reopened (estimated about the second week in May)
  • No licensed motor vehicles are allowed beyond the gates, but boots, bikes and snow mobiles are.
  • We work Monday through Thursday, leaving Friday through Sunday for uncontested(!) recreation, but we encourage you to check the back country avalanche forecasts and weather before you go  
  • We also ask you to stay clear of our clearing equipment so no one gets hurt or hurts it

Check out photos from the SR 20 North Cascades Highway snow removal project on Flickr.

1 million gallons of biodiesel fuels WSDOT on road to greener, more sustainable transportation

Thursday, April 10, 2014

By Noel Brady

Our fleet of trucks and ferries recently realized a seven-digit milestone on the road to sustainability. For the first time, the agency’s fuel purchases in 2013 included more than 1 million gallons of biodiesel for ferries and mid-to-large-size trucks and equipment.

That means a net savings of more than 1 million gallons of regular diesel, including 687,741 gallons used for ferries and 318,775 purchased by the land fleet to fuel work trucks and other heavy equipment. It’s big news for Washington, where transportation ranks the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. And it’s the latest green thumbs up for WSDOT’s award-winning fleet.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (pdf 753 kb), substituting biodiesel, which is derived from vegetable oils and animal fat-based oils, for petroleum-based diesel can reduce smog-forming emissions from particulate matter by 10 percent, hydrocarbons by 21 percent and carbon monoxide by 11 percent for highway vehicles. Hydrocarbons are greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

WSF’s fleet of vessels each use up
to 5 percent biodiesel. Soon WFS
will launch a pilot project to study
the feasibility of using up to 10 percent
biodiesel to fuel ferries.
Increasing the use of biofuels, such as biodiesel, is a widely accepted strategy for slowing climate change. Since biodiesel is derived from plant matter, it is not a fossil fuel, so it’s renewable. Biofuels come from plants and trees, which need CO2 to grow. Using biofuels doesn’t add as much CO2 to the atmosphere; it recycles it.

Considering these factors and others, a 2006 study published in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that biodiesel can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 41 percent.

The benefits of biodiesel are clear, and we plan to continue
growing its use as an alternative fuel, said WSDOT Energy Policy Manager Tim Sexton. Washington State Ferries uses biodiesel made primarily from recycled canola oils. WSF is preparing for a pilot project to evaluate increasing the percentage of biodiesel it uses to fuel vessels.

Into the green fleet first

Since 2009, use of biodiesel and other alternative fuels, such as propane and electricity, has helped WSDOT’s  fleet cut greenhouse gas emissions by 263 metric tons of CO2 equivalent. Since 2008 WSDOT also:
  • Reduced employee travel by 2.2 million miles
  • Cut fuel consumption by 10 percent or about 400,000 gallons
  • Purchased plug-in hybrids, all-electric vehicles and charging stations

Source: Washington State GHGEmissions Inventory 2009-2010



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