Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Work is progressing on the new bridge on SR 529 at the Ebey Slough

by guest blogger Bronlea Mishler

As you drive through Marysville on I-5, it might be easy to overlook the little steel bridge just to the east, spanning the Ebey Slough on State Route 529. But if you’re stuck in seemingly never-ending freeway traffic, that little bridge can become a driver’s best friend. Built in 1925, the swing-span bridge across the Ebey Slough gives local drivers the option to avoid I-5 congestion as they travel between Everett and Marysville.

Back in its heyday, however, the span was one of the few options for crossing the Ebey Slough. At the time, the bridge was the pinnacle of then-modern technology. It could pivot open at its center to allow tall boats to pass, then swing closed to allow traffic across. One 11-foot-wide lane in each direction gave drivers ample room, and a three-foot sidewalk gave bicyclists and pedestrians space to cross, too. 

Fast-forward 86 years, and that once-modern bridge now seems narrow – unsuited for today’s wider vehicles – with not enough room for pedestrians and cyclists to pass. And frequent openings for marine vessels can put a serious hitch in drivers’ daily commutes.

Fortunately, a solution is on the way. Last year, crews began work on a replacement Ebey Slough Bridge – this time taller, wider, and built out of sturdy steel girders with a concrete roadway. Standing 13 feet taller than the old bridge, the new span won’t need to open for marine traffic. And with two 12-foot driving lanes in each direction, plus two six-foot sidewalks and two five-foot bike lanes, there’s plenty of room for all types of commuters.

This month marks a major milestone for construction crews as they begin setting 49 girders, each weighing in at approximately 31 tons. It’s more visible work for drivers, too. Most of the work completed since last year has been fairly innocuous: Crews have built temporary work platforms above the slough, drilled deep holes for steel and concrete pilings, and prepared the support structure for the steel girders. Now that the girders are in place, the new bridge is really beginning to take shape – literally. For the first time, the new 680-foot span is beginning to look like a bridge, not just a forest of concrete pillars.

Placing each of the girders – which stand seven feet tall and range in length from 100 to 135 feet – is a time-consuming process. Two cranes pluck a girder from the work platform, carefully guide it into position, and then gently swing it into place atop the concrete pilings. The crews typically set 3 girders per day, and expect to wrap up placement of all the girders by the end of June.

By April 2012, drivers who have patiently (or not-so-patiently) been watching the new bridge take shape will finally get a chance to drive on the span. Crews plan to open the bridge to northbound traffic in April; southbound traffic will have to wait to use the new span until August, as crews wrap up work in those lanes. Once all traffic is on the new bridge, crews will demolish the old steel span.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The geeky side of avalanche control...


by guest blogger John Stimberis

As an Avalanche Forecaster I work in a snowy environment where I am able to explore a variety of questions related to avalanches, weather, and snow. Outside of work my colleague Charles Rubin (CWU Geosciences) and I explore some of these questions and occasionally find answers. We had our paper Glide avalanche response to an extreme rain-on-snow event, Snoqualmie Pass, WA published in the Journal of Glaciology this month. I’m sure you’re asking “What is an extreme rain-on-snow event “, “what is a glide avalanche response?”, or “when will summer actually begin?” Well, before I answer these questions let me provide a little background information. Dr. Rubin, he prefers Charlie, and I have been working together on avalanche related issues for the past eight years. Much of this work is done in my spare time, kind of like a hobby. OK, full disclosure- I am a snow geek, nobody does research in their spare time as a hobby unless they are a complete geek.

Anyway, now that we’ve cleared that up let’s get back to the research. Charlie and I have been studying a glide avalanche slope near Snoqualmie Pass. Glide avalanches occur when the entire snowpack slides as a cohesive mass, right to the ground. These events are rare in their distribution and are difficult to predict when they will release. During our research we’ve managed to record a few events, provide data for some of Charlie’s graduate students, and stay interested enough to continue with the work.

During January of 2009 a large storm was forecasted to affect Washington State. This was going to be one of those Pineapple Express storms with lots of rain and flooding due to high snow levels. Charlie and I figured the rain would trigger a glide avalanche due to the warming and water flowing through the snow pack. We were ready to record the event using the various sensors that were in place. I was also ready for the normal snow avalanches that might affect I-90. Rain often triggers avalanches within minutes of the first rainfall. Our avalanche crews performed a full round of avalanche control prior to the arrival of the rain to keep any rain triggered slides to a minimum.

Our expectations were met when the rain arrived and we observed only small slides or sluffs that didn’t reach the highway due to our preemptive avalanche work. The rain fell throughout the day and into the night at a heavy rate, sometimes as much as .45” an hour. It looked like everything was going to be fine. The snowpack was absorbing most of the rain probably because the snow had been so cold and dry up through early January. Here’s where it gets tricky, don’t let down your guard. Just when it all seemed ok, it wasn’t. A large flow of water, slush, ice, rocks, and trees hit the highway in the area of a stream/avalanche path. Our Maintenance crews quickly cleaned up the area, but new problems were popping up everywhere. The water had finally made its way through the snow and the flood was on. The highway turned to a river. Interestingly, the glide avalanche slope wasn’t doing much.

By the following day we assumed the worst was over. Water was flowing freely through the snowpack and lowland flooding was now the big concern.
Massive landslide at Hyak in 2009
Wrong again as a massive landslide consisting of rocks, mud, woody debris, and snow let loose at the Hyak Ski Area. This slide took out a chairlift and a couple of houses. Still no glide avalanche though. The rain began to let up and by mid afternoon we had almost given up on the glide avalanche when it finally occurred. Even though the rain had affected the snow surface (usual onset of snow avalanches), then penetrated the snow to lubricate the base of the snowpack (typical trigger for glide avalanches) we didn’t see a glide avalanche. When the rain begins to let up we generally assume the snow is stabilizing and we won’t see any more avalanches, but we did.

Charlie and I assume it took so long to happen because the snow pack prior to the rain was cold and dry. It took some time for the snow to settle and become a large cohesive mass, something we feel is necessary for glide avalanching to happen. Once the snow began to settle we saw the glide rates increase. It’s worth noting that normal avalanches happen quite quickly, while glide avalanches are often slow to develop. Our snow study plot on Snoqualmie Pass recorded a 3 foot decrease in the snow pack during the rain event. People often assume the snow is melted by the rain during these storms, but it takes a lot of energy (heat) to do that and there generally isn’t that much in a rain storm. What happens is most of the snow compacts and settles, which is good for stabilizing avalanche conditions, but not for the glide avalanche. I’m glad we don’t have many of these glide avalanches to deal with.

After the storm Charlie and I assessed our data and put together a paper describing the event. We presented the results at the International Snow Science Workshop in Davos, Switzerland. It was quite an honor to go there and speak to snow geeks from all over the world. We were encouraged to expand our report and submit it for publication in the Journal of Glaciology, and after revisions and peer reviews we were accepted and published. We plan to continue our research during the coming winters, and who knows maybe someday I’ll find the time and money to get a master’s degree of my own.

Hopefully this article sums up the paper, but just in case you want to read the full account (pdf). At least you now know what a rain-on-snow event can do and what a glide avalanche is. As for the third question, summer technically began on June 21, but we here in the Pacific Northwest know better. According to some forecasters summer really begins on July 12. Whenever it arrives remember to enjoy a little, it will be gone before you know it.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Project of the Week: Smashing the SR 16/I-5 bottleneck

By guest blogger Joe Irwin

Traffic that once ground to a standstill as 131,000 vehicles drove through Pierce County will run freely Sunday, June 26, when the SR 16/I-5 Westbound Nalley Valley Viaduct opens to motorists in Tacoma. For those driving anywhere from I-5 to anywhere from Gig Harbor and Gorst to Poulsbo and Port Townsend this is welcome news.

The new viaduct improves flows – removing a bottleneck and weave from the interchange completely – and reduces the potential for collisions for drivers. Between 2005 and 2009, an average of 26 collisions occurred at the weave annually. This number is projected to decline considerably as a result of the new construction.

This is a great thing, especially for those who not-so-fondly remember heading north on I-5 to the Bremerton exit, running into to a ridiculous wedge that attempted to cram three lanes of traffic down to a single lane, and then immediately upon entering westbound SR 16 had these same drivers trying to weave into oncoming traffic also headed westbound on SR 16 from southbound I-5. As motorists attempted to either get on mainline 16 or take the Sprague Avenue exit, what followed was a poorly choreographed ballet that featured frantic cut-offs, brake lights and applause in the form of honking horns. A mess really.

That’s all coming to an end, though. And this was definitely reason for WSDOT to honk its own horn.

About 50 people, including federal, state and city representative gathered on Sprague off-ramp Wednesday, June 22 to mark the occasion.

The $139 million viaduct was $14 million under budget and completed several months ahead of schedule. Crews built 10 new bridges – including a segmental overpass connecting northbound I-5 to westbound SR 16 – since Guy F. Atkinson Construction started the $120 million, nickel-funded project in January 2009. The bridges, constructed from new approaches on 77 piers, span more than 7 acres.
It was a massive project, but it is just the beginning in terms of coming improvements for Tacoma traffic.

The work supports construction of the Eastbound Nalley Valley Project, which begins this fall and in 2013 will move eastbound SR 16 traffic onto a new viaduct structure, and open a new ramp between S. Sprague Avenue and eastbound SR 16. In 2020-2022, WSDOT returns to SR 16/I-5 to add HOV lanes, completing the overall project and helping the agency move Washington even more safely, quickly and efficiently.

It might seem like a ways off, and it is, but for anyone who has ever witnessed the SR 16/I-5 ballet in full swing, it’ll be worth the wait.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Saving green with white? Snow and Ice Crew honored Friday

Photo cutline: Standing in front of a mountain of salt, left to right, Maintenance Operations Staff Superintendent Jim Andersen, Maintenance Operations Branch Manager Monty Mills, Maintenance Operations Staff Superintendent Jay Wells and Director of Maintenance Operations Chris Christopher. More photos

It was during a hot summer (remember those) that our Snow and Ice Materials Contract Team started researching companies that sold snow and ice-fighting materials such as salt and liquid deicers. The team also considered how we could modify restrictive contract language to attract new bidders, and possibly save the state money.

This effort proved an overwhelming success. Updating the snow and ice materials contract and attracting additional bidders saved Washington close to $6 million in the first two years. As an added bonus, the contact also passed on savings to local government, Washington’s cities and counties. Using the state’s new contract, cities and counties were able to buy lower cost snow and ice-fighting materials.

And, while saving money was a great benefit, it wasn’t the only way the team “saved.” They also secured a much more reliable salt supply, making sure snow and ice-fighting materials are always available to keep drivers and the economy moving.

Monty Mills, our snow and ice lead, says it best. “We encountered a challenge during the 2007-2008 winter. Many will remember this was a very harsh winter across much of the country. Materials, especially road salt, were in short supply and the prices were very high. It made us think we could do this better.”

Over the following spring and summer, Monty and his team researched salt and deicer suppliers, vendors and shipping alternatives to see how to reduce our costs for snow and ice fighting materials, plus secure a reliable source, regardless of weather. In coordination with the state’s General Administration Contract Administration group, they were able to put forth a request for proposals that attracted many new bidders, and ended up with significant savings.
Friday (June 24), the Washington State Productivity Board recognized group with a Teamwork Incentive Program award.

And, while the team could have been eligible for an award of up to $10,000 per person, they turned down this award and received $200 each. "It was part of the job," said Chris Christopher, director of Maintenance Operations. See Saturday's story in The Olympian.

The Snow and Ice Materials Contract Team, based in Thurston County, includes Director of Maintenance Operations Chris Christopher, Maintenance Operations Branch Manager Monty Mills, Maintenance Operations Staff Superintendents Jay Wells and Jim Andersen, retired Contract Specialist Gary Smith, and Department of General Administration State Procurement Officer Robert Paulson Jr.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Once you start, you just can’t stop – drivers be warned of significant delays on northbound I-5 near Burlington

by guest blogger Dave Chesson

This machine helps us to remove the old concrete
panels.
The hardwood floor in my house doesn’t look that bad, but it creaks too much and is getting really worn out in places. I know from past experience with other projects in my old house that once I start making repairs, I need to dedicate all the time and resources I can to avoid living for months on end in a layer of constant dust and debris.

So what do my house repairs have to do with your commute? All that construction work we’ve planned to fix northbound I-5 between Burlington and Lake Samish at the Whatcom County line is kind of like my house project. Once you start, you can’t turn back. And like my hardwood floor, we have 12 miles of I-5 pavement that’s cracking and wearing out, and in need of repair.

Our pavement repairs go beyond just fixing the cracks; the repairs go to the very foundation of our interstate. We will be ripping out and replacing bridge approaches and concrete roadway panels and repairing bridge decks, among other projects. This work will be complex, time-consuming and must be done in sequence, which means drivers can expect around-the-clock lane closures for two weeks, Mondays through Fridays.

If you plan to drive this stretch of northbound I-5 during the next few weeks, you’ll want to pay attention: Only one lane of northbound I-5 north of Burlington will be open next week from 7 p.m. Monday, June 20, through 10 a.m. Friday, June 24. You can expect delays of up to an hour or more during the afternoon commute, especially between 2 and 6 p.m. If you want to save yourself a lot of time and help us keep traffic moving, plan ahead and check when the best times are to travel through the project area, reschedule your trips, or take alternate routes. You can find more information on our project website. We need warm and dry weather for this work, so keep your fingers crossed for good weather. If all goes well, crews will complete the second five days worth of work starting on June 27.

When this part of the work is done, the most inconvenient part of construction for travelers will be out of the way. In order to resurface the entire roadway and complete other repairs, crews will still be working overnight during the week and will need to close a lane. There’ll also be the occasional ramp and rest stop closures. When the project is done in the fall, the road will be smooth and as good as new.



Travel graph
Flickr photos

Monday, June 13, 2011

Chinook Pass Opening 2011

Summer. . . a time for shorts, tank tops, swim suits, and…  ski boots??  For our avalanche technicians and maintenance crews, essential gear includes  mountaineering skis, avalanche rescue gear, and down parkas regardless of the June date.  Crews have been hard at work clearing Chinook Pass of its record snowfall since early April. 

But if they have been working since April, why is the pass still closed? 

To begin with, snow has continued to fall on the pass, even into June, keeping SR 410 at the summit  buried under 20 feet of snow. This new snow, combined with the warm summer temperatures that we all enjoy, made for some very unstable slopes.  Both natural and controlled avalanches have left up to 20 feet of snow and debris on the roadway, and if the temperatures stay warm, more avalanches are likely.

Our crews were busy for two weeks in May responding to emergency flooding damage around the Yakima Valley and had to be pulled off working on Chinook clearing.   They have since cleared to the summit from the east, while crews working out of Greenwater (20 minutes east of Enumclaw), are clearing from the west.  Equipment issues put crews behind schedule, but they are currently within two miles  of the summit from the west.  The two crews will continue until they meet, and then plow the full width of the roadway  and repair or replace damaged signs, before Chinook Pass can be re-opened for the season.

Most of the businesses along SR 410 rely heavily on visits from summer tourists.  We are very much aware of this, and are working diligently to open Chinook Pass by the end of June.

SR 410 is a scenic byway, considered one of the most beautiful in the United States.  Lake Tipsoo, near the summit, is one of the most often photographed landscapes in our state. Many great hiking trails and camping grounds are found along the route.  Highlights include traversing the Pacific Crest Trail, a four-mile loop around Naches Peak, a hike to Boulder Cave, camping near the Bumping Lake Recreation Area, and hiking on Skookum Flats Trail, to reach the 250-foot Skookum Falls.  SR 410 is also the eastern entrance to Mt. Rainier National Park, the nation’s fifth established national park.  As soon as we can safely re-open SR 410 over Chinook, travelers can once more enjoy the scenic drive and the great summer activities along the route.

Bring on the sun!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Protecting drivers by helping Geese

by guest blogger Jamie Holter

Each day, our traffic engineers monitor traffic through the 440 cameras perched high above Puget Sound roadways. They look for collisions, disabled vehicles, dangerous litter (like bumpers or hubcaps) that could cause collisions or other problems. They also watch traffic flow to determine when to activate systems like Smarter Highways on I-90 (we just activated these signs this week).

Well, it was during a routine traffic check on I-90 when they found Mother Goose and her five goslings booking down the shoulder of I-90. Washington State Patrol spotted them too and herded (herded? guided?) them off at the next exit. Not only do we want them to make it through spring, but we also want to make sure they don’t wander in front of your car. Can you imagine how bad you’d feel if you hit one? Or the mess it would cause if you swerved to try not to hit it?




Friday, June 3, 2011

Memorial Day 2011 recap: mixed bag, same story

High gas prices? Other economic factors? The weather? There are as many theories as vehicles on the road this Memorial Day weekend. (If you are wondering, those numbers are below).

Whatever the question, the answer remains that travel was markedly mixed for Memorial Day 2011.

While east-west travel showed a decrease, north-south travel over I-5 showed a bit of an increase. So what about those mountain pass backups, you may wonder. While travel may have been down, it was only slightly. Combined with traffic incidents, there were places where drivers experienced significant congestion.

Both I-90 Snoqualmie Pass and US 2 Stevens Pass were busy Monday, while drivers who stuck to the I-5 corridor moving through with atypical ease.

Here are the numbers for the I-90 Snoqualmie Pass Memorial Day 2011 travel weekend (comparing 2011 with 2010):

  • 181,000 vehicles traveled over Snoqualmie Pass (both directions) from Friday to Monday, a decrease of 6,000 vehicles or 3.2 percent.


  • 55,000 traveled Friday, a decrease of 1.1 percent, with drivers traveling earlier, so the late-night buildup didn’t happen.


  • 600 fewer vehicles traveled over the pass on Friday.


  • About the same number of vehicles traveled over the pass Saturday.


  • 2,300 fewer vehicles traveled over the pass Sunday.


  • 50,000 traveled Monday, a decrease of 5.7 percent. Most of this decrease was in the early morning and late evening. Those noontime and early evening travelers were still met with the congestion and long waits we predicted.

I-5, Olympia to Tacoma showed a slight increase of Memorial Day weekend traffic.



  • 40,600 vehicles on I-5 between Olympia and Tacoma (both directions) from Friday to Monday, an increase of 16,500 vehicles or 4 percent.


  • 3,100 more (2 percent) traveled on Friday.


  • 4,700 more (4 percent) traveled on Saturday.


  • 3,800 more (4 percent) traveled on Sunday.


  • 4,900 more (5 percent) traveled on Monday.

I-5, Bellingham to the U.S./Canadian border showed the most significant travel increase, with 133,000 vehicles on I-5 between Bellingham and the U.S./Canadian border (both directions) from Friday to Monday. This was an increase of 14,700 vehicles (or 11 percent) compared to 2010.



  • 2,700 more (7 percent) traveled on Friday.


  • 5,000 more (14 percent) traveled on Saturday.


  • 4,200 more (13 percent) traveled on Sunday.


  • 2,800 more (10 percent) traveled on Monday.

US 2, Stevens Pass Again, while those stuck in Monday’s traffic backups may not believe it, only 34,500 vehicles on US 2 Stevens Pass (both directions) from Friday to Monday. This was a decrease of 1,000 vehicles (3 percent) compared to 2010.Travel patterns for the four days appear to be as forecast.



  • 600 less (6 percent) traveled Friday.


  • 300 less (4 percent) traveled Saturday.


  • 400 less (5 percent) traveled Sunday.


  • 350 more (3 percent) traveled Monday.