The reality of bridge strikes

Friday, April 17, 2015

 By Barbara LaBoe

We know how vital our bridges are to motorists in our state.

Even a short bridge closure can snarl daily commutes, disrupt critical freight deliveries and overwhelm alternate routes. That’s why we keep a close eye on our bridges and overpasses, including regular inspections and preventative maintenance projects.

But we’re also concerned about bridge strikes, particularly on some of our older, lower-clearance structures.

Minor bridge strikes are not uncommon, but we’re particularly concerned about a recent spate of serious damage to our bridges.  Those major strikes, and related closures, spell trouble for both drivers and taxpayers.

Since 2008, we’ve documented 127 strikes on 78 bridges. Fifteen of those incidents were serious enough to close or restrict the bridge, including the 2013 strike that knocked the Skagit River Bridge into the river and cost $17 million to repair.

Two recent serious bridge strikes – one on the Interstate 90 overpass in Issaquah in March and another on the State Route 410 White River Bridge earlier this month -- led Gov. Inslee to proclaim a state of emergency Thursday, April 16. Combined, the repairs are estimated at $3 million.

Crews make temporary repairs on the State Route 410 White River Bridge
earlier this month after an over height vehicle struck and damaged the bridge.
Another 84 bridge strikes were significant enough to require emergency bridge inspections and priority repairs. The remaining 28 were minor strikes, but even those can build into larger problems over time.

Part of the problem is the changing times.

Bridges and overpasses – including some early parts of our freeways – were built to lower standards. In the 1950s, the standard clearance level was 14-foot, 6-inches. Today it’s two feet higher. In the meantime, trucks and their cargos have grown bigger and heavier, posing a challenge to older bridges and structures.

By state law, it remains the driver’s responsibility to check his or her route before setting out. To help, we’ve developed an online Bridge Vertical Clearance Trip Planner that lets drivers map out their routes to spot potential trouble spots. It debuted earlier this year and was developed with the help of the Washington Trucking Association.

The Bridge Vertical Clearance Trip Planner, which debuted in January,
helps truck drivers make better, safer decisions about routes
and which bridges they should avoid.

The tool maps out a route and highlights state highway bridges with clearances that are too low or that might require a specific lane for safe clearance.

We’ve also reviewed signs on all bridges 15 feet 3 inches tall and lower, rewritten our permit regulations for clarity and launched a comprehensive review and re-measurement of all bridges with clearances of 16 feet 6 inches and lower.

We hope these steps – and reminding drivers about the dangers and responsibilities that come with over height loads – help truck drivers make better, safer decisions. That not only protects taxpayers’ investment in our roadways, it also safeguards all motorists and helps to keep traffic moving throughout the state.

Relief in the works for eastbound SR 16 drivers in Tacoma

Thursday, April 16, 2015

By Doug Adamson

We promise. It will get better.

Soon after the eastbound State Route 16 project wrapped up in Tacoma last summer, drivers were treated to a much easier commute over the Nalley Valley and onto Interstate 5. It was welcome relief after years of congestion followed by years of construction. However, regular free-flowing traffic to northbound I-5 was short-lived. That's because shortly after finishing construction in Nalley Valley, crews kicked off work on an adjoining project called I-5 - M Street to Portland Avenue - HOV.

In that project, we are building future HOV lanes on I-5 through Tacoma. The work also involves replacing the original surface of I-5. To replace the surface, crews have created an I-5 traffic island. Workers have been hard at work in the island – that's closed to traffic – removing beaten down concrete and replacing it with brand new concrete. Once the island work is complete, we'll move traffic onto the new concrete. Crews will then continue replacing concrete elsewhere in the job.

Inside a construction island on northbound I-5 in Tacoma workers have removed the original roadway surface, dating back to the 1960's. The work involves grinding down below the original surface and replacing it with a much more reliable and smooth surface.

We are very aware of how this traffic island has led to recurring backups from eastbound SR 16 to northbound I-5. Delays are magnified if anything out of the ordinary occurs, like a collision or a disabled vehicle. The good news is that this traffic configuration is temporary. Once the lanes are in their final configuration, you'll enjoy a much less congested drive.

Our challenge is to keep traffic moving while at the same time, giving I-5 its largest overhaul in Tacoma in decades. We're taking on that challenge, albeit with the request of patience and tolerance from the traveling public.

Decades of heavy use and weather have taken a toll on the original surface of I-5 in Tacoma. Here’s the extent crews have dug into I-5 to replace the original surface and conduct rehabilitation work.

Over the last few years, drivers have watched us build pieces of a much larger puzzle. A giant piece of the puzzle was the addition of the second Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which greatly enhanced travel along westbound and eastbound SR 16. We added HOV lanes on SR 16, and now we're adding the capacity for I-5 HOV lanes in Tacoma. The most recent focus is two projects that will add capacity to I-5 from M Street, over the Puyallup River, and into Fife. In the next few years, we'll also launch the last of three projects over the Nalley Valley. That's where workers will build HOV lanes and HOV ramps between I-5 and SR 16.

This is all fine and good, but I'm sick of traffic
I would be hard-pressed to find someone who enjoys sitting in traffic. But there are a lot of things each of us can do to help alleviate traffic backups.

For example, check out our driver tools. Drivers can get information from their phones via the WSDOT mobile app. Additional information is available from WSDOT email alerts and Twitter.

Consider using alternate forms of transportation to get around. Public Transportation agencies can help by connecting you with carpools, vanpools or transit.

Do you have the option of working a flex schedule? That's a great way to avoid the morning and afternoon peak crush hours.

There are other ways you can help. Should you get into fender bender, move your car to the shoulder. Better yet, avoid the fender bender in the first place by giving yourself plenty of room between you and the vehicle in front of you.

Addressing the westbound I-90 detour confusion

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

By Mike Allende

After every major closure for construction or maintenance work, two of the most important questions we ask ourselves is, “How did it go, and how can we make it better?”

Could we have communicated information better? Could we coordinate with other agencies better? Can we make traffic move more efficiently? Answering those questions are vital to our ability to get important work done while creating the least amount of disruption to the public as possible.

Crews work on the fire detection system inside the Mount Baker Tunnel
as part of the I-90 Two-Way Transit Project.
After our March 27-30 westbound I-90 detour for work on the I-90 Two-Way Transit and HOV Operations project, we identified a few areas where we could improve to help drivers get where they needed with less confusion. And so we’re implementing some changes this weekend, when from 11 p.m. Friday, April 17 until 5 a.m. Monday, April 20, all westbound I-90 traffic will again detour to the express lanes between Bellevue Way Southeast to Rainier Avenue South.

The changes won’t take away traffic congestion – you should still plan on leaving as early as possible and consider alternate routes – but it should address some of the major concerns.

The main adjustments we’re making involve clarifying how to access Mercer Island.

All traffic for Mercer Island must still exit westbound I-90 at East Mercer Way. During the previous detour, there was confusion for some drivers on Bellevue Way and on I-90 as to how to get to the East Mercer Way exit, leading some to drive through closed areas, which is never a good idea.

This time, we’re adding more signage to make it clear which lane I-90 drivers should be in for Mercer Island (the right) and for Seattle (the left). Bellevue Way drivers will be able to use their more familiar I-90 ramp that leads directly to East Mercer Way (last time they could only use the I-90 HOV ramp) and westbound I-90. We’ll also have extra law enforcement available to help clear collisions and remind people to not drive through areas that are closed off. Remember, we close those areas for a reason and going through them puts workers and drivers at risk.

Extra signage and added law enforcement are some of the changes drivers
will see to ease confusion during this weekend’s westbound I-90 detour.

Answering a few other common questions we've heard:
  • Why is anything closed? I don’t see anyone working!: Much of the work is being done inside the I-90 tunnels, so much of the work may not be visible.
  • Why can’t you open I-90 further down?: We’re also working under Luther Burbank Park so we need the closure where we have it for worker safety. We’ve made adjustments to merge areas and are keeping two lanes of I-90 open as far as possible to try to help with traffic flow.
  • Will the I-90 Trail be open?: Yes, the trail will be open.
  • Do you have dates for future weekend work?: After this coming weekend we have two more weekends of work scheduled, May 1-4 (eastbound) and 15-18 (westbound), then our contractor will take a break from the weekend closures until the fall.

This is the third of 30 directional closures of I-90 we’ll have for this project through mid-2017 and each one will be a chance for us to learn and make the next one smoother. We’re confident the changes we made for this upcoming weekend will help. But again, it will not eliminate congestion. Anytime you close lanes on a major highway, traffic shifts to other places and it creates challenging traffic so please, if you’re going to the Mariners game, the Snoop Dogg concert or any other place this weekend, add plenty of extra time to your trip, be patient and plan your route ahead of time.

Free Coffee Ahead: The return of Java-touting rest area signs

Monday, April 13, 2015

By Barbara LaBoe

Weary Washington drivers looking for their next jolt of caffeine now have some extra help  “Free Coffee” signs have returned to several state safety rest areas.

Volunteers have served up free coffee at Washington rest areas for more than 20 years. It’s a popular program that benefits drivers and allows groups to collect donations for their efforts. The coffee never left our 37 participating rest areas, but for a while the signs alerting drivers to the free java did.

Why were the signs removed? We’re not anti-coffee by any stretch of the imagination. And we know our state loves its cup of joe. But, in 2012 we had to remove the previous flip-open “free coffee” signs due to safety concerns.  The volunteers had to walk much too close to moving traffic while opening and closing the signs. Sometimes they had to cross ditches and other barriers as well. Our own workers aren’t allowed alongside roadways without proper safety gear and spotters, and we couldn’t ask or allow volunteers to take similar risks. In all, 35 signs were removed even though the coffee kept flowing at each site.
This “Free Coffee” sign now tells drivers approaching the
northbound Smokey Point rest area about the free,
volunteer-run coffee program.

In 2014, two electronic signs failed at the Smokey Point Rest Area and were taken out of service. The Smokey Point signs had been a pilot program that was deemed too expensive to expand or continue. Each sign would cost about $6,000 to replace today. With tight state budgets, $6,000 signs just weren’t feasible, nor was it equitable to replace just the electronic signs.

After the Smokey Point signs were removed, we heard from volunteers that donations were suffering because some drivers no longer knew about the coffee.  We worked with our staff and a Smokey Point volunteer representative to find a way to meet everyone’s needs.  Sen. Kirk Pearson’s (R-Monroe) office also provided input.

The challenge was finding new signs that didn’t require volunteers to open and close them while still making it clear to drivers that not every site has volunteers – and coffee – 24 hours a day.  With the old signs, if someone accidentally left it open we’d sometimes hear complaints from drivers who stopped only to find the coffee stand closed.

The solution?  Our new, static “Free Coffee, Volunteer Program” signs. These signs were installed at the 13 most popular free coffee rest areas last month and do not need to be open or closed.  Adding “Volunteer Program” also indicates this is not a state-run or fully-staffed venture.  (Never fear, the free coffee remains at all 37 participating rest areas, but some just aren’t staffed with volunteers regularly enough for a sign at this point.)

We hope this compromise gives us the best of both worlds, the return of the signs and safe, happy volunteers. And, of course, the free coffee. Drink up.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Good To Go! Flex Pass (But Were Afraid To Ask)

Friday, April 10, 2015

By Ethan Bergerson

Recently, we reached another milestone on the road to launching the I-405 Express Toll Lanes with the availability of the new Good To Go! Flex Pass. We’ve received hundreds of phone calls and emails asking us about the new Good To Go! pass, and we’ve got answers to some of your most common questions right here.

1. Why did WSDOT create the new Good To Go! Flex Pass?
The new I-405 express toll lanes will be open to anyone on the road whenever they need it. But the Flex Pass is carpoolers’ golden ticket to travel free in the express toll lanes. You’ll need to meet new occupancy requirements, and have an active Good To Go! account and the new Flex Pass in HOV mode to travel free in the express toll lanes. This lets us know you’re carpooling so that we don’t charge a toll.

2. How will the new Flex Pass work?
The new Good To Go! Flex Pass will give carpoolers the option to drive in the new I-405 express toll lanes for free while also offering drivers the flexibility to use the lanes when they don’t qualify as a carpool. Here’s how: 
  • When you have enough people in your car to qualify as a carpool, just swipe to the right to turn on HOV mode before entering the express toll lanes, and you’re free to travel the system. 
  • If you’re traveling alone and running late or just want to bypass the congestion, simply toggle to TOLL mode and cruise into the express lane for a quicker trip. 
  • The Flex Pass will also work to pay tolls on all other Washington toll facilities.
3. What if you don’t have enough passengers to travel free? 
Vehicles that don’t meet the carpool occupancy requirements can pay for access to the lanes even if they don’t have a Good To Go! pass. This is a choice that doesn’t exist today on I-405. Drivers with any Good To Go! pass installed in their vehicle will pay the lowest toll rate. If a vehicle without a Good To Go! pass enters the lanes, the system takes a photo of your license plate and either deducts the amount from a registered Pay By Plate account (an extra 25-cents per toll), or sends the vehicle’s registered owner a Pay By Mail bill. This gives every car a new reliable option reach their destination sooner for those times when you’re running late to a critical appointment and really need to get where you’re going as soon as possible.  

4. Do I have to get a Flex Pass if I already have a Good To Go! pass? 
While we recommend the new Good To Go! Flex Pass for anyone who plans on carpooling in the I-405 express toll lanes, drivers who do not plan on carpooling on I-405 can continue to use their current Good To Go! passes. But remember, the Flex Pass is the only way to drive for free as a carpool on the I-405 express toll lanes, any other Good To Go! pass will be charged on I-405 regardless of the number of vehicle occupants. Everyone has different needs so choose the pass that works best for you.

If you already bought a switchable pass for carpooling on SR 167, then you qualify for a free upgrade. Call 1-866-936-8246 or email to put in your request. While your switchable pass will continue to work the same when carpooling on SR 167, it will be charged a toll when carpooling on I-405 even when it is turned off.

5. What’s this about a free Flex Pass?
We realize that this is a big change for carpoolers, and we want to make the transition easier. That’s why we’re giving the Flex Pass away for free to frequent carpoolers. And don’t worry, you won’t need to camp out in line in front of the Good To Go! customer service center to be the first to get it. 

Do you qualify? 
  • Do you live, work, and/or play in King and/or Snohomish counties?
  • Do you carpool at least once a week on I-405 (including weekends!)?
If you answered yes to both, congratulations! You qualify for a free Flex Pass through, or a community partner.  Just create a profile or log into your existing account, and answer a few questions, and we’ll send you your Flex Pass in two to three weeks. We’ll give you a free Flex Pass if you routinely have two people in your car, but you can also use to find a third person to share the ride with in order to drive toll-free at peak hours. Visit the I-405 Express Toll Lanes website to learn more.

Featured Flickr Photo

Final SR 520 floating bridge pontoon passing by Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood.
Fremont Salutes Pontoon F

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