New ramp meters designed to help I-5 traffic move more smoothly between Lacey and Tacoma

Thursday, May 14, 2015

By Doug Adamson

Congestion relief slated for I-5 in Thurston and Pierce Counties
I-5 congestion in Thurston and Pierce counties at times can be rough. The situation certainly doesn’t help people going to work, families trying to reach soccer practice, or business operators moving freight and goods. We are continuing efforts to help alleviate time-wasting traffic. In addition to building some big capacity-improving projects on Interstate 5 through Tacoma, another major effort soon will launch between Lakewood and Lacey.

Lakewood, JBLM, DuPont shrouded ramp meters to be unveiled
Drivers may have noticed new ramp meters being installed on I-5 ramps in Lakewood, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and DuPont. Those ramp meters are set to come online as early as Monday, May 18. These proven tools are part of a group of improvements designed to help reduce congestion on this stretch of I-5. While long term solutions are being explored, we are working to make the most of the lanes that are out there now.

Crews will activate new ramp meters at these interchanges near Joint Base
Lewis-McChord where traffic routinely slows to a crawl during the morning
and afternoon commute.
Ramp meters: A key tool
As an I-5 driver, you’ve no doubt seen it a thousand times. You slow down or even stop to let a group of merging vehicles onto the freeway. The car in front of you and the 10 cars behind you do the same, resulting in braking, occasional collisions and added congestion to the highway. During peak commute hours, that slowdown gets compounded by the heavy traffic volumes. Picture what happens when you temporarily dam a creek. Water backs up. The water changes course, slows down and spreads out because of the obstacle.

Reduce the flow of traffic to a trickle
This predicament is created as traffic lights near interchanges move large numbers of vehicles at the same time onto an already-packed highway. Ramp meters are a big part of the solution – they create a momentary pause for each vehicle merging onto the highway. Instead of a large number of vehicles merging at the same time, congestion is eased when vehicles merge at a gradual and controlled rate. The controlled rate helps prevent highway drivers from hitting their brakes, and helps reduce collisions at the merge point.

How they work
Vehicle-sensing technology is installed at the ramps and along the highway lanes. Data from those sensors are sent to computers that crunch numbers to determine the best balance for traffic flow on both the ramps and lanes. The ramp meters automatically activate when they are needed, and at the ideal rate for the real-time traffic conditions. Ramp drivers participate in that process by stopping at the white stop bar at the meter. Their vehicle triggers a sensor that tells the meter it needs to turn green. Once the green light goes on, the driver is free to proceed. Some ramps allow more than one vehicle to proceed on the green light; signs at each ramp will tell drivers how the specific ramp meter works.
The new ramp meters, traffic cameras, and variable-message and travel-time
signs are part of a federally funded project specifically designed to help alleviate
congestion through this corridor by installing intelligent transportation systems
(ITS) tools to better manage traffic.
When they operate
Ramp meters generally operate during morning and afternoon weekday commutes, but they can also be activated any time there is a disruption in traffic flow like what’s seen with a blocking collision.

Sometimes the meters operate when highway traffic at the ramp appears to be moving just fine. The ramp meters are integrated and can look at highway volumes far upstream of drivers. Their goal is to sense when traffic volumes start getting heavier, and to help prevent backups before they begin.

Team approach
We are working collaboratively with leaders from the Cities of Lakewood, Lacey and DuPont, JBLM, Pierce and Thurston counties, transportation planning organizations, and others to tackle traffic congestion on I-5 in the south Sound. As an example, the City of Lakewood landed a $5.7 million grant to improve access to Madigan Army Medical Center by making improvements to the Berkeley Street overpass (Freedom Bridge). That construction is scheduled to begin in 2015.

The other side of the coin
While ramp meters help traffic flow on highways, the system can affect traffic on city streets. We understand the short delays merging onto the highway may cause driver frustration. It gets back to that balance – a short wait at a ramp meter gives more dividends to drivers by smoothing out the highway commute.

This proven technology has been used across the country for decades and in the greater Seattle area for over 20 years. Meters aren’t even new to Pierce County. They have been operating for the last few years on State Route 16 in Tacoma, and they’ve been used extensively in King and Snohomish counties. Here’s the takeaway: Ramp meters are a cost-effective and efficient way to boost freeway efficiency.

We need your help
We believe we can’t build our way of out congestion. The massive expense alone makes huge expansion unsustainable. At the same time, the state’s high quality of life and economic climate continues to lure people to our state. The latest U.S. Census Bureau figures estimate Washington’s population grew by nearly 88,000 from July 2013 to July 2014. That’s like adding another Kent, Federal Way or Yakima. The solution to traffic congestion is multi-pronged and requires all modes of transportation to be available, from walking to flying. Ramp meters are one component to help get us closer to a solution.

Full I-90 detours in Seattle take a summer vacation

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

By Mike Allende

Just one more weekend to go and that's it for full directional detours of Interstate 90 across Lake Washington until October.

We want you to be on time to watch the Mariners sweep the Red Sox this weekend, so be sure to leave early, consider alternate routes and please be patient. From 11 p.m. Friday, May 15 to 5 a.m. Monday, May 18, contractor crews will continue making upgrades in the Mount Baker and Mercer Island tunnels as part of the I-90 Two-Way Transit and HOV project.

Workers have been making significant upgrades to the infrastructure
in the I-90 tunnels during the full weekend directional detours.
Now, while we won't have any full directional closures until the fall, that doesn't mean we won't be working. We'll still have lane closures and we'll still be getting a lot done.
  • We'll continue upgrading the fire suppression systems inside the tunnels.
  • We're modifying the tunnels in order to install a new ventilation system.
  • Lighting in the tunnels and on the highway will be upgraded.
  • Work will start to realign the existing reversible ramp connecting the express lanes to Island Crest Way to become an eastbound HOV off-ramp.
  • Installation work for new roadway sign bridges will begin.

Among the work happening in the I-90 tunnels
is upgrading the lighting to improve visibility.

We can get this work done without having to do the major closures that were required over the past few months. But remember, those full weekend detours begin again in October and we have 25 more scheduled through mid-2017. We'll continue to do the best we can to schedule around events but we have to get this work done in time for Sound Transit to begin constructing light rail across the lake so be sure to stay plugged in on our website and social media channels for updates.

I-405 express toll lanes get animated (VIDEO)

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

By Emily Pace

I-405 express toll lanes are coming later this year and we've been pounding the pavement to let people know why and how to get prepared. And this is just the beginning! We’ll be coming to a community, fair, festival or meeting near you soon! However, there are other ways you can learn about I-405 express toll lanes all on your own.

Today we released the new I-405 express toll lanes animated video. It’s down-right informative and will have everything you need to know to get ready and give you an example of what your trip may look in the express toll lanes.

Most people are familiar with the adage that it's better to show than tell. This is particularly true when trying to convey something complex like express toll lanes.

So take a gander and let us know what you think! For more information on I-405 express toll lanes visit:

Goat “weed warriors” ready for battle this summer

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

By Barbara LaBoe

We're deploying some four-legged warriors this summer in our never ending battle with weeds along state highways and right of ways: Goats.

We first used hoof-powered weed control last year in Vancouver. This year – appropriately enough the Year of the Goat – we’re expanding the pilot program.  Goat weed warriors will tangle with brush and weeds in Olympia and Spokane as well as return to battle at more Vancouver sites.

We normally use workers with mowers and other gas-powered machines to clear these areas. Goat power has decidedly less greenhouse gas emissions and is better for the environment. Goats also sterilize weed seed through their digestive process, preventing new plants from taking root.  And, four legs are also better than two when it comes to storming some rocky, weed-infested areas.

Goats call this dinner; we call it a vegetative management approach.
Goats may be pretty ferocious with their fabled cast-iron stomachs, but they’re not necessarily cheaper weed eaters.  There are rental costs, temporary fencing needed in some areas and staff time involved in letting goats attack our weeds. (One project uses donated goats owned by a WSDOT employee, but even that project has fence reinforcement and staff time costs).

What we’ll be studying this summer in the pilot project is whether the goat benefits outweigh the extra costs.

We picked three goat deployment locations to ensure we’re testing the goats – and costs –in different situations and on different terrains. All costs, including labor, feed, transportation and fencing, will be recorded during the weed wars – some lasting a few days, others a good chunk of the summer.

Weeds, brush and small trees – all in a day’s work for our four-legged weed whackers.
We’ll issue our findings in a WSDOT Research Report, which will be shared with other states and the national Transportation Research Board. Goat “mowing” is growing in popularity, but few states have comprehensive cost/benefits figures.

Here are the locations of our goat test projects:

Goats from Rent-A-Ruminant will clear vegetation from a former homeless camp under the Interstate 5 interchange near Henderson Boulevard starting May 9. Temporary fencing will allow the goats and goat herder to remain on site for several days.

In addition to evaluating how the goats work in the field, this project also aims to remove brush and other overgrowth to make the site more exposed and less likely to attract future homeless camps. Such camps pose safety risks to our maintenance crews and also can lead to damage of state property. More than 2,000 pounds of trash was recently cleared from the camp.

Goats provided by Healing Hooves will be used to prevent or delay seed production in an 18-acre noxious weed infestation along US 395 near Spokane. These non-native weeds can quickly take over an area and choke out more native species. This type of four-legged mowing prevents flowering and seed production and allows for more effective weed control with herbicide later in the season when perennial weeds are most vulnerable. The 250 goats will be onsite late spring or early summer.

This is where our goat story began when maintenance technician Heidi Holstrom deployed her own herd of goats at a stormwater pond last summer. They’re back again this year and are gaining ground, now working at 12 sites. They start work at their first site today, May 6. While the goats are free again as part of the pilot project, other costs will be recorded as part of the statewide study. Water quality impacts also will be studied on a site with standing water and potential outflow.

Goat weed warriors fan out to tackle weeds in Vancouver last summer.
They’re returning this summer and also will be deployed in Spokane and Olympia.
Want to know how the goat warriors fared during this summer’s battles? Check back this fall when we’ll detail the results of this summer’s weed wars.

Tuesday I-5 crash highlights cross-agency teamwork

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

By Mike Allende

Today was already a busy morning in our Seattle-area Traffic Management Center (TMC). Visions of Cinco de Mayo tacos and burritos quickly evaporated as a rainy morning led to a bevy of collisions in the Seattle area.

And then northbound I-5 closed down.

At 8:22 a.m., our staff was alerted to a collision on northbound I-5 at Olive Way via the State Patrol’s Computer Aided Dispatch. Quickly finding it on traffic cameras, it was clear that this was a doozy. A pickup truck was on fire, two cars had significant damage and no traffic was getting through.

A serious collision during today’s morning commute
blocked all lanes of northbound I-5 near downtown Seattle.
Springing into action, we began coordinating with the State Patrol, King County Metro Transit and Seattle DOT to plan for traffic using alternate routes. Our staff deployed messages on Video Message Signs alerting drivers of the collision and advising alternate routes. Our communicators used social media to get information out to the public and worked with traditional media to update the traffic situations.

WSDOT Traffic Management Center staff work on getting messaging
out to the public and reversing the I-5 express lanes Tuesday.
The closure was still looking like a long-term situation when at 8:44 a.m., we deployed staff to reverse the I-5 express lanes to northbound (typically this happens at 11 a.m.). This is no easy task as it involves Incident Response Team members clearing traffic out of the lanes and signals engineers ensuring that the signage is correct before officially closing the gates southbound and opening them northbound. But doing so would provide significant congestion relief to northbound traffic, and we had them open to northbound traffic at 9:59 a.m.

While the backup from the collision merged with normal traffic to form a 7-mile backup, messaging on VMS boards and social media kept the congestion from growing even more. Traffic on I-5 was exited at Olive Way and other drivers avoided the area altogether. Meanwhile, the fire department worked to put out the fire, aid crews assisted those involved in the crash and the State Patrol investigated the scene.

Warnings on VMS boards gave drivers a chance to use alternate
routes, helping to minimize the backup on northbound I-5.
Soon, our maintenance staff began cleaning up the foam used to extinguish the vehicle fire and all of a sudden, it looked like lanes would start opening up. By 9 a.m., all but one lane of traffic reopened, just 38 minutes after the collision was reported. By 9:32 a.m., all lanes had reopened.

It was truly a remarkable effort by the responding aid crews to get a situation that had so many moving parts and appeared as though it would be closed for a significant amount of time cleared so quickly. By coordinating with our partners at WSP, SDOT and Metro, traffic impacts - though still significant – were managed well and minimized as much as possible.

WSDOT maintenance staff clean up debris from the northbound I-5 crash.
It took just over one hour to go from all lanes blocked to all lanes open.
Today was an excellent example of several agencies working together to get a major highway situation under control and cleared quickly and safely. Restoring traffic from a completely closed five-lane highway in the middle of rush hour to completely open in just over one hour was a proud moment for all involved.

Featured Flickr Photo

Planing machine on SR 181 in Tukwila
Planing machine on SR 181 in Tukwila

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