Wednesday, December 7, 2016

It’s the time of year we like to call “Will it or won’t it?”

By Mike Allende

Will we see snow, or won't we? Forecasting weather is tough, but preparing for a storm or hazardous traveling conditions isn't. Whether flakes fall or not, it's often cold enough during winter months for ice to form and create slick roads.

While our crews treat roads 24/7 during colder months, that doesn't mean there won't be areas where ice has formed and travel is tough. Deicer salt also doesn't work when temperatures are under 20 degrees. So we count on drivers to do their part.

Ice can be expected on all roads this time of year, so drivers should slow down in hazardous conditions.
What does that mean?
  • Slow down and drive for conditions.
  • Increase your stopping and following distances. If you're pulling into traffic, be sure there's enough room to get up to speed and to allow others to slow down while you merge.
  • Pay attention to and abide by traction requirements.
  • Be sure your vehicle is prepared (pdf 1 mb) for winter travel.
  • Be extra cautious on ramps, bridges and overpasses, which tend to freeze first.
  • Give snowplows and other large vehicles extra room.
  • Drive to your abilities. If you don't feel safe driving during hazardous weather, make the right decision for you.
  • Know before you go. Check forecasts and road conditions before heading out.
When snow/ice is on the ground, give snowplows and other large vehicles plenty of room.
In the event of a major storm affecting state highways, we have a number of resources available to keep people informed of conditions and road closures.

We use Twitter as our primary tool to communicate in real time with travelers and have a number of relevant accounts worth paying attention to:
  • @wsdot: Will provide statewide updates and information.
  • @wsdot_traffic: Updates for King and Snohomish counties.
  • @wsdot_north: Updates for Skagit, Whatcom and Island counties.
  • @wsdot_tacoma: Updates for Pierce, Thurston, Mason and Kitsap counties.
  • @wsdot_sw: Updates for Vancouver and southwest Washington
  • @snoqualmiepass: Updates for the I-90 corridor from Snoqualmie Pass to eastern Washington.
  • @wsdot_east: Updates for roads east of the Cascade Mountains.
  • @wsferries: Updates on ferry service.
  • @wsdot_passes: Updates on pass conditions and traction requirements.
The Washington State Patrol also has several Twitter accounts that are useful to learn about road conditions and get safe driving tips. The National Weather Service has accounts devoted to both Western and Eastern Washington and are good sources for staying up to date on forecasts.
Plan ahead by equipping your vehicle
with emergency supplies.

When using Twitter, be sure to check #wawx, #wasnow and #wintersafety to easily keep updated on conditions and updates on weather.

We don't typically use Facebook for specific road condition updates unless it's a very serious incident/closure. Instead, it will be a convenient place to find stories and videos that include information about forecasts, winter travel safety tips and what we are doing to prepare for extreme weather.

Our winter web page is an excellent resource to find a variety of tools to help you prepare. Among the highlights:
  • Videos to show you how to put on chains and drive for conditions.
  • An explanation of what traction advisories mean
  • Our mountain pass reports so you know what the roads look like and what traction requirements are in place.
  • Active travel alerts to plan for any road closures or other incidents that may be affecting your route.
We encourage everyone to download our free app for their mobile device. You can find traffic maps, mountain pass reports, ferries information and travel alerts, among other resources.

Information about traffic and weather on state highways is available by dialing 511. Messages are updated frequently, including mountain pass conditions and blocking incidents on highways.
Our various Twitter accounts are a primary way we relay real-time road information to the public.

While it may seem that more often than not, predictions of major snowfall don't pan out, it's always a good idea to be prepared and know where to turn for information before an emergency actually occurs. Because as soon as we let our guard down, that's when we'll find ourselves slipping and sliding all over the road. Protect yourself from those situations by getting ready now and knowing where to check if a big weather event does arrive.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Snowplows revving up as winter kicks into high gear

By Brett Cihon

If you're not a skier or don't head over the mountain passes often, it's probably been awhile since you've seen a snowplow.

But if predictions for this winter hold, you could soon spot the hulky vehicles on state roads.
Snowplows do everything from clearing the roads of snow
to putting down product such as sand and de-icer.

Plows have already been hard at work over our passes and they're ready to go should the snow that we started to see fall on Monday, Dec. 5 warrant it.

This time of year we inevitably get dozens of questions about snowplows. How do drivers train? Why do they plow when there's no snow on the roadway? What's the best way to pass them?

I checked in with our veteran Enumclaw-based plow drivers to get some answers.

How do they operate that thing?
Learning how to drive a snowplow is a bit like learning how to drive a car. A really big car. New maintenance technicians sit in the passenger seat of a plow while an experienced driver is behind the wheel. The veteran drives a route and explains the operations from the cab, including how much salt, sand or other material to use. Then, the new technician trains in parking lots or on simple routes along mountain passes when snow starts falling in early winter. These are low-risk situations and take place in infrequently traveled areas.

When the first big snowfall hits and groups of plows go out, it's usually the newest driver in the front so more experienced drivers can watch from behind and radio advice.
A look at how a snowplow operates
How do they get ready for a big storm?
In advance of a big forecasted storm, shop superintendents put crews on 12-hours shifts. Forecasts and temperatures are monitored closely, and once temperatures get below 35 degrees, anti-icer is applied to roadways. As the snow starts falling, plows work 24-7 to distribute the state's 30,000-plus tons of salt, sand and more than a million gallons of liquid anti-icer to the roads.

How can I safely pass a plow?
Short answer: Don't pass one. Plows are on the roadway to improve driving conditions. Snowplow drivers across the state can recount tales of speedy, impatient drivers blowing past only to spin out seconds later. Being behind a plow is often the safest place to be.

Most plows work at speeds between 35-40 mph. This allows for the sand and salt to fall properly onto the roadway. This is plenty fast for drivers in snowy conditions. No waiting needed!

If passing is a must, wait until the plow driver allows it. Often times, drivers will slow down and pull a bit to the side when there's cars behind them and conditions allow for passing. 
A look inside a snowplow
Where are you when we need you?
During an expansive lowland snow event, maintenance shops kick into high gear. Rest assured crews are working 24-7 to get roads clear. Crews rank the roads based on three levels of priority, and plow Level One priority roads first. High traffic routes such as Interstate 5 between Olympia and Seattle are prioritized, with less-traveled roads plowed later. Be patient. If it's a state road, we're likely coming to plow it.

This road is bare, why are you plowing it?
This depends. If snow is forecast and temperatures are below 35 degrees, the plows are likely spreading anti-icer or sand as preventative measures. Also, sometimes the road appears bare but there is actually a thin layer of slush. Lowland plows equipped with rubber plow rails are able to finely scrape the road for any remaining snow that could cause drivers to lose traction.

How do I become a snowplow driver?
Outside of some seasonal drivers hired to help Snoqualmie and other major mountain passes stay clear, the majority of our drivers are maintenance technicians. They're jack of all trade types who hop into plows when the white stuff starts falling.

We recommend potential plow drivers have some experience with Class A CDL license and a decent knowledge of machinery. Most importantly, though, drivers need a calm demeanor. Driving snowplows is tense business. The weather, the control of heavy machinery  and other drivers on the snowy roadway all account for a lot of stress. Individuals that remain calm under pressure make the best drivers.

If you're interested in applying for a maintenance technician job, keep an eye on our job listings for openings.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Obey signs over passes for everyone's safety

By Mike Allende

This time of year, we keep a close eye on the weather. But keeping up with forecasts can only do so much. Especially in our mountain passes, the weather is going to do whatever it's going to do.

And that's what happened in the early evening of Wednesday, Nov. 30 when a sudden storm dropped about 4 inches of snow in an hour onto Interstate 90 over Snoqualmie Pass. While our crews worked to keep up with the weather, the traction requirements changed rapidly due to the road conditions, ultimately requiring all vehicles except all-wheel drive to chain-up.
A chain reaction collision led to a 7-hour closure of westbound I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass this week.

Unfortunately, some drivers ignored this requirement, resulting in multiple collisions that closed I-90 in both directions at 7:30 p.m. Eastbound reopened to traffic just after 10:30 p.m., but westbound didn't reopen until 2:30 a.m. That made for a long night for travelers and responding aid crews.

All vehicles traveling over mountain passes need to be prepared. Carrying chains is always a good idea as conditions can change quickly and requirements may call for all vehicles to use them – even all-wheel drive. When faced with snow and ice on roadways, slow down and increase your distance between other vehicles.

It's vital that everyone comply with traction requirements and the variable speed limits. Traction requirements are made collaboratively between the Washington State Patrol and our crews, and are based on current road conditions and the weather. They aren't suggestions, they are requirements and are made for the safety of everyone.
Multiple vehicles ignored messages requiring chains over I-90 Snoqualmie Pass,
leading to several collisions and a full closure of the highway.

We all remember last winter. If it seemed like Snoqualmie Pass was closed a lot, well, it was! It was a record-breaking December up there, but what's interesting is that a majority of the closures weren't due to preventive avalanche control work; the closures were a result of collisions. And crashes on mountain passes can sometimes take hours to clear due to the severity, remote location, access to services, and limited space on the highway, especially at bridges.

So please, have chains available and know how to put them on. Be sure your vehicle is equipped for winter travel because you never know how long you might be stuck in bad weather. Check conditions on the pass. And ultimately, please, drive for winter weather conditions, slow down, be cautious, give each other space and obey the traction requirements posted on the electronic message signs.

Monday, November 21, 2016

North Cascades Highway waiting game is over

By Andrea E. Petrich

Twice a year we play a waiting game involving - arguably - the most beautiful stretch of highway in Washington. That waiting game is over for 2016. The State Route 20 North Cascades Highway is closed for the winter.

After temporarily closing the highway on Friday, Nov. 18 due to increased avalanche risk, we reevaluated the conditions on Monday morning and, combined with a forecast of increasingly rough weather later this week, decided to call it a season. The pass opened on April 22 after about a month of work by our crews clearing the roadway. This year's closing is almost a week later than in 2015, when we closed it on Nov. 16.
The SR 20 North Cascades Highway closed for the winter on Monday, Nov. 21.

The SR 20 North Cascades Highway through North Cascade National Park connecting the Skagit River Valley and the Methow Valley offers travelers beautiful blue-green lakes, hairpin turns and jagged peaks during the summer months but some of those beautiful summer features turn dangerous in the winter.
Avalanche chutes more than 2,000 feet long stretch along miles of this highway making it too dangerous to provide a safe highway all year. During the winter we close the highway and let the snow fall and avalanches slide down these steep chutes near Whistler Mountain, Washington Pass and Cutthroat Ridge. As soon as crews safely can, they'll start plowing this stretch of road in the spring. While it isn't safe to keep it open all year (always dependent on weather), we work to keep it open as long as we can and get it open again as early as we can so visitors and travelers can enjoy the National Park and the businesses that operate on both sides of the mountains.

That said, the pass isn't closed to everyone. While licensed motor vehicles can no longer get through, back country skiers, snowshoers, snowmobilers and others can use the area year-round. But If you are out for winter adventuring while the highway is covered in snow, please be prepared and know conditions before you go.
While the North Cascades Highway is closed to licensed motor vehicles, skiiers, snowshoers
and others can still use it, but should be cautious heading to the pass.

Want to be in the know during this waiting game? Sign up for our email list – Click on Traffic and Travel Updates -> Mountain Pass Conditions -> North Cascades Highway SR 20 -> and you'll get emails about clearing progress next spring and/or follow us on Twitter for photo updates as well.
So for those who do love it, think snow!

We'll be back with you in a few months as the waiting game begins again, this time for the opening date of this beautiful stretch of National Scenic Highway.

Plan ahead to ensure you enjoy all of your holiday traditions

By Barbara LaBoe

The Thanksgiving holiday is a time for fun and relaxation, but holiday feasts can also present some tricky "high stakes" choices.
  • Homemade or canned cranberry sauce?
  • Rolls, biscuits or cornbread?
  • Turkey or Tofurkey?
  • And don't forget Apple Cup the next day: Cougars or Huskies?
The day before Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel days of the year, especially on I-5 between Tacoma and Olympia. Thanksgiving
weekend is a very busy travel day and significant congestion can be expected on most major routes throughout the state.

A quick poll of co-workers and friends found some pretty strong – and unbending – feelings about each of these choices. And that's how it should be – it's what makes holiday traditions so special.
Anyone driving over mountain passes for the holiday
should be prepared for winter conditions.

You also have choices to make when it comes to Thanksgiving travel. Stay close to home or head out of town? Leave early Wednesday or put it off until Thursday? And when should you head home to beat the worst of the traffic? We want to make sure you don't miss out on your favorite holiday tradition because you made the wrong travel choice, so here are some tips and tools to make sure no one starts eating without you.
  • Know before you go. Our holiday travel charts help drivers plan trips around the most heavily congested travel times.
  • Online tools further help plotting your trip and our mobile app, 5-1-1 travel alerts and social media such as Twitter and Facebook help you stay informed on the road. (Have a passenger check these once on the road, distracted driving is a sure way to ruin a holiday).
  • Make sure both your vehicle and your passengers are prepared for winter travel.
  • Carry chains, especially if traveling over passes.
  • If traveling by ferry, leave extra time for holiday lines at the docks, consider purchasing tickets online  and make reservations if traveling on the San Juan or Port Townsend/Coupeville routes. Some ferries run on Saturday schedules on holidays, check your route schedule before heading out.
  • Check out the two extra trains WSDOT has added to its Amtrak Cascades routes for the holiday on Wednesday, Nov. 23 and Sunday, Nov. 27. Trains sell out quickly during holidays, so make reservations at or 800-USA-RAIL as soon as you can.
  • Know your tolls. The State Route 520 bridge will have weekend rates on Thanksgiving, returning to normal rates on Black Friday.  On the Interstate 405 Express Toll Lanes, everyone travels for free on the holiday, returning to normal and HOV requirements on Friday. Weekends are always free in the I-405 lanes.
  • Slow down: many pass and road closures are caused by vehicles spinning out or crashing, not the actual snow levels. Don't be the one driver who snarls traffic for everyone.

Don't forget the football
This year's Apple Cup in Pullman on the Friday after Thanksgiving also presents several choices, especially with likely playoff and bowl invitations on the line. The 12:30 p.m. start doesn't leave much travel time between Thanksgiving meals and kickoff, making travel choices even more important.
The Apple Cup the day after Thanksgiving will add even more traffic to I-90 and roads into Pullman.

Will fans travel the night before or get up early the day of? Will true diehards try to have their Thanksgiving meal in the car this year?

Whatever your decision, follow these tips to help ensure you get there with time to spare:
  • Plan your route and give yourself extra travel time. No matter which way you're heading, there are only a couple of ways into Pullman. Drivers should expect congestion on US 195 and SR 27 between Spokane and Pullman, plus SR 26 between Vantage and Colfax, both before and after the game.
  • Be prepared for snow or ice on the passes – and check pass reports before heading out the door. A forecast calls for a series of strong fronts moving into the area on Thanksgiving and lasting through the weekend with snow levels falling which could lead to significant snow accumulation on the passes. High winds are also expected.
  • Slow down. No game, not even the Apple Cup, is worth crashing or risking injury.

Here's to a safe and stress-free holiday weekend and an exciting, hard-fought Apple Cup.