As Co-Director of Maintenance and Operations for WSDOT, I want to say that I appreciate the time and effort people put into their responses to our question posted last week on this blog. It was a simple question, “How did we do?” While it was a very challenging week for all of us at WSDOT, we read every comment – all 75 – as we debriefed and compiled our "lessons learned" process after last week's storm.
As we all reflect back on the storm, one key thing keeps coming up. Events such as the one from last week with a significant amount of snow and ice on a large number of roads in western Washington quickly exceeds the work that can be done with the amount of equipment available to us for this purpose. This is simply the reality that we face. It would not be cost effective to have the amount of people and trucks available to be everywhere all at once.
About half of the comments we received from you were supportive of the efforts we provided. The other half clearly indicated that you thought we could have done better. While I personally was pleased with much of our effort (this was the third week of our crews working 12-hour shifts around the clock) there are certainly some things we need to be doing differently in the future.
- As many of you mentioned, we need to do a better job getting up to date information to people that may be stuck in their vehicle in an event. As such, we will be modifying our use and reliance on our Highway Advisory Radios (HARs). While limited in their range, these devices can be an effective tool for getting information to you.
- We need to work more closely with media (specifically radio stations) to emphasize critical areas at more frequent intervals during events, even if that is during non-typical traffic reporting times.
- Many of you suggested that we consider using salt to de-ice the roads. I can plainly say that we have been (and will continue to be) aggressively using anti-icers on the roads throughout the entire area affected by the storm. While we don’t have an exact number quite yet, we used more than a thousand tons of anti-icers from Seattle to Bellingham fighting this storm. Statewide for a given winter we may use as much as 20,000 tons to 30,000 tons of anti-icers as part of our snow and ice removal program. Anti-icers are an important tool and we will continue to expand our use of them in the future.
- We are developing more creative ways of applying anti-icer to the road ahead of snow events in the urban areas. We already monitor the weather forecasts and in some instances, pre-apply anti-icers to the roadways a number of hours ahead of the predicted snow. However, in order to accomplish this, drivers must recognize that we may impact the overall flow of traffic at a time when it may not be clear what we're up to. For instance, this may mean that at 11:30 a.m. we may be driving down I-5 at 30 mph with our plow trucks, applying rock salt to the roadway in anticipation of a pending snowstorm. In some cases, we may spread the anti-icer and the snow may not occur.
- We are investigating creative ways to access locations such as the SR 522/I-405 interchange from different directions. For instance, we might drive plows southbound to the interchange in the northbound lanes, against the normal flow of traffic. This is not a simple thing to do, given the amount of traffic and the necessary precautions that would need to be taken. We have to work very closely with Washington State Patrol and others so that we can accomplish this in a safe manner, as we do not want to make an already challenging situation worse by endangering either you or our employees.
- We are in the process of evaluating additional locations to stage both anti-icers and sand to assure they are strategically located in the right places so we can respond as quickly and effectively as possible.
In addition to the changes outlined above, we are still in the process of looking at our response to the storm in very minute detail. Within the next few weeks, we anticipate more items to add to the lessons learned that we will be implementing in the future.
It was just a week ago that WSDOT was at the center of a Puget Sound regional debate about how our agency managed the state highways during a furious fall snow storm. We received dozens and dozens of e-mails, letters and phone calls from frustrated drivers wanting to know what we did and why we did it. This blog was born out of our effort to try and share some of that dialogue with others who may feel the same way.
We have, as of Wednesday, Dec. 6, received more than 70 comments in response to our first blog posting, which simply asked, "Tell us how we did?" We owe it to you to analyze those postings and report back on what we can do with the great ideas you shared in those comments. As one writer commented, "Too much compassion, not enough action. The 'compassionate' and long-winded response by WSDOT was all very well and good, but the bottom line is we need action." Point taken. We'll post the results of that analysis next week.
Meanwhile, this blog will live on. We like the feel of it. It's a little more casual and a lot less bureaucratic. There is not a lot of interest in fancy titles here. We'll have experts share their thoughts and ideas on particular topics, of course. But don't expect somber descriptions of cardboard policy.
Instead, we plan to share some of the stories of the people and the programs that make WSDOT a vibrant and interesting organization. Through this conversation, we hope you'll see a group of citizens just like you, working to make this a better place to live, work and do business.
I'll be one of your hosts. As one of the agency's public information officers, I am fortunate to hear a lot of interesting stories. As a former journalist, I hope I can present these stories in a way that will capture your imagination and keep you coming back. But I won't be the only one posting to the blog. As this project continues, more names and faces will be added to mix.
So again, welcome to the WSDOT blog. We are glad you stopped by.