Friday, March 30, 2012

Coming soon: a new bridge near Satus Pass

By guest blogger Summer Derrey
A sharp corner and narrow shoulders leave
 little room to navigate the Satus Creek Bridge.
US 97 cuts through the shrub-covered steppe in south central Washington, just south of Toppenish. The highway weaves around the rolling foothills that are checkered by sagebrush. Signs on the winding 65 mph highway warn the traveler to slow down to 55 at Satus Creek. The 132-foot bridge over Satus Creek has shoulders less than two-feet wide on each side, leaving little room for error.

About four collisions per year take place on or around the bridge. About half of the wrecks are due to motorists bumping into the guardrail.

It’s time to tear down the 70-year old wooden artifact and replace it with a bridge that suits today’s drivers.

US 97 is worthy of repair because the popular freight corridor is the shortest route between Yakima and Portland. It’s the only north to south route on the Yakama Indian Reservation. US 97 intersects with Interstate 84 in Biggs, Oregon. From there, motorists can go east to Pendleton, or west to The Dalles, Hood River and beyond.

We are working with contractor William Charles West of Kennewick, this spring, summer and fall to replace the bridge in (basically) three steps:

  1. Build a detour around the existing bridge.
  2. Remove the old bridge.
  3. Build the new bridge.
The new bridge will hold heavier loads, will be 48 feet longer, and will have wider lanes with a little more breathing-room on the shoulders. Crews will also repave sections of US 97 half a mile north and a mile and a half south of the bridge, expand lanes and shoulders, and improve sight distance.

Like all warmer-weather construction projects, there will be delays. In the spring, motorists will wait up to 15 minutes, and in the summer, drivers may be delayed a bit longer, so pack your patience.

A lengthy detour route is available, so consider the extra time and miles compared to the estimated delays on US 97. Southbound motorists can head east on State Route 22 toward Prosser, and then take SR 221 south to the intersection with SR 14 in Paterson. From there, drivers can either travel east to cross the Columbia River on I-82 into Umatilla, Oregon or west to cross the river on US 97 into Biggs, Oregon. Northbound motorists can use the same detour route, in reverse order. Signs will direct drivers through the detour.

In the fall, the waiting will be over. The smell of sage, the screech of the red-tailed hawk and the dust kicked up by the wild horses won’t be the only attractions in the valley. The new bridge will be a welcomed addition.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond named one of Top Ten Public Works Leaders of the Year by the American Public Works Association

The Washington APWA chapter, made up of nearly 1,400 members, named Paula winner of its 2011 Roy Morse Award for outstanding technical or professional accomplishments in public workers. Her name then was submitted for the national award, along with 63 other nominees from AWPA chapters in the United States and Canada. APWA this week announced its Top Ten Leader national winners.

“Congratulations, Paula, on this well-deserved award,” said Jill Marilley, Washington state APWA Chapter president. “Your career excellence and dedication to public works easily made you stand out as a Top Ten Leader and we are fortunate to have you as an example of professionalism, commitment and focused intention to create ongoing success in public works.” Marilley also noted how APWA recognizes that Paula has done a fantastic job of steering WSDOT through major organizational changes and troubling financial times.

Paula will first receive her state award recognition May 22 as APWA Washington celebrates Public Works Week. In August, Paula will be recognized with her fellow national Top Ten Leader winners at the APWA national convention in the Los Angeles area.

APWA is an international educational and professional association of public agencies, private sector companies, and individuals. Originally chartered in 1937, APWA provides a forum in which public works professionals can exchange ideas, improve professional competency, increase the performance of their agencies and companies, and bring public works-related topics to public attention in local, state and federal arenas.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

New SR 522 off-ramp to US 2 gets rave reviews from drivers

By guest blogger Bronlea Mishler
Looking toward eastbound traffic
 at the top of the new SR 522 flyover ramp

When it comes to construction projects, sometimes we’re a little biased: We like ‘em all. Once you shepherd a project through the design process and watch it come to life on the highway, you get a little attached. And we’re not ashamed to say that we’re darn proud of our work.

The real icing on the cake for us, though, is hearing positive feedback from drivers after we wrap up a construction project.

Take the new flyover ramp from eastbound SR 522 to eastbound US 2, for example. Regular commuters and residents had waited years for a faster, more direct connection to US 2 and points east, and the two year construction period probably seemed to last forever.

Just before Christmas last year, we opened the new ramp to traffic early on a Saturday morning. We knew the ramp would make a big difference to daily drivers and holiday travelers alike – and we got almost instant positive feedback:

It’s great! It has made it so much easier in the evening commute. If I have to go east, I’m not stuck at the light anymore and when I need to go west toward home, I’m not stuck behind a huge line of cars turning east and I can usually zip right through.
I have driven the new ramp three times since it opened. Much to my surprise it was easy to use and there was no traffic back up as I had feared. The landscaping is lovely.
I love the new ramp at SR522 and US2. I use it regularly and really appreciate not having to wait at the light. I can’t wait until all the rest of the work can be completed to open up the new WB lanes on US2 as well – that should help with the backups in the area. Thanks for everything you do… I recognize WSDOT has very limited resources, and I appreciate the work you do.
I think it’s great! It sure does streamline traffic flow, making eastbound access to Highway 2 seamless.
Great job on the new flyover ramp; it has definitely made our commute home quicker and easier.
We love it! When we wanted to go through Monroe it was heavenly and when we wanted to go to Fred Meyer it made that transition easier by having fewer cars in the mix!
Gotta say, really enjoy this new ramp and extra lane on EB hwy 2 in Monroe. Makes for a much more pleasant commute home from work every day.
I like it because I commute regularly through Monroe not needing to stop and this makes it a little easier.
Getting so much positive feedback really makes our day. If you’re out on the highways this spring and summer – perhaps headed to the pass for some late-season skiing or over the mountains for some time in the sun – try out the new ramp and see what you think.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Restoring Seattle's King Street Station

Officials view King Street Station renovations 
Seattle’s King Street Station, with its grand interior and ornate decorative features, opened in May 1906 with the focus on passengers and their travel experience, rather than merely loading and unloading cargo. Fast forward more than a hundred years to a time when pulling into Seattle’s King Street Station will once again generate excitement and anticipation for a new generation of rail travelers.

Federal, state and local officials converged on the station this week to commemorate the start of construction on the largest phase of an ongoing historical restoration of the 100+ year-old building. WSDOT is investing $16.7 million in federal high-speed rail funds to strengthen King Street Station and its clock tower to better withstand earthquakes. The project also restores the station’s main hall as originally built in 1906 with white marble walls, decorative lighting and other features removed during “modernization” of the station more than 50 years ago.

The restoration, managed by the city of Seattle, is an ongoing partnership between WSDOT, FRA, Amtrak, Federal Transit Administration, 4Culture services agency and the city. Since 2008, nearly $30 million in federal, state and local funding has been invested to improve the station and restore its unique historic character.

The King Street Station Seismic Upgrade project is one of five federally-funded capital rail projects under construction in 2012. Since 2009, Washington has received nearly $800 million in federal high-speed rail funds to increase the frequency and reliability of Amtrak Cascades passenger rail service between Portland and Vancouver, B.C. This investment supports 19 projects along the 300-mile corridor creating jobs in communities up and down Washington’s I-5 corridor. When the projects are complete in 2017, travelers will see more frequent service between Seattle and Portland, reduced trip times and fewer delays.

Having this new station….requires putting up with construction equipment, noise and a little dust. Because the popular station will be in full operation during the renovations, WSDOT and Amtrak are working closely with the city to minimize disruptions to travelers.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Graffiti on Washington’s highways – Big problem, little resources

Graffiti along I-5 between North 85th Street & Northeast 92nd Street in Seattle

 Every week, vandals armed with cans of spray-paint make their mark on walls, columns, and signs along I-5. And every week our maintenance crew goes out to paint over the mess.

Graffiti removal underneath I-5 at Columbia Way exit ramp.
You can see the vandalism pretty consistently along I-5 through Seattle - on the walls along the roadway, on the overpasses, and even on the freeway signs. Usually it slows down when the weather turns wet in the fall, but with the mild winter we’ve had, the frequency of graffiti has increased. Our crews have seen a lot more graffiti this fall/winter, and in locations that are more challenging to clean up.

Vandals are getting creative with their tactics, hitting hard-to-reach areas that require additional resources like high-lift bucket trucks and lane closures for our crews to get in there to get it cleaned up. The Mercer Street tunnel in Seattle is a prime example. The tunnel is lined with tile and is one of the favorite “hot spots” for vandals. Access to the Mercer Street tunnel to clean up graffiti is very challenging, as we have to close lanes overnight to get in there. And because the graffiti is so visible, drivers who use that exit daily get frustrated as to why it takes so long to get it cleaned it up.

Even electronic message signs are being targeted. The speed limit signs on SR 520 near Lake Washington Boulevard have been vandalized twice, requiring replacement of the signs. Our crews had to work overnight, using high-lift bucket trucks and closing lanes to get the work done. This is not only very time-consuming and costly, but is also a frustration to drivers on the roadway that are delayed due to the work required to clean up after vandals. We recently installed a chain link fence along the overpass to keep vandals from getting to the signs.

Graffiti removal for just our Seattle office (which covers the Canadian border to the King/Pierce county line) costs between $120,000 and $145,000 annually. We’d rather spend that money on patching potholes and fixing roads. We could put another full-time maintenance employee and truck on the road for what it costs for graffiti removal.

Graffiti underneath the carpool on- ramp from
southbound I-405 to westbound I-90.
Our crews are working hard out there trying to remove graffiti and prevent more of it. We use fencing in target areas to block access, install additional lighting where possible, and even use motion sensitive sprinklers. It is a never ending battle of who will get there first (or last) and with limited resources, the vandals are ahead in winning this war.

Report graffiti in the greater Seattle area.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Halfway to 24/7 HOV lanes Seattle to Bellevue

By guest blogger Noel Brady

If you ride a bus, a carpool or a vanpool across Lake Washington, you probably know how the express lanes can take the edge off a tough commute. But if they’re reversible express lanes, just make sure your commuting the express direction.

Take the I-90 Express Lanes in the center roadway between Seattle and Bellevue for example. If you live on the Eastside of King County and work a regular 9-5 in Seattle, you’re golden. If you go the other way, well, not so much.

We’re phasing out go-with-the-flow reversible express lanes on I-90 and replacing them with full-time HOV lanes in both directions for around-the-clock express trips for carpools and buses in either direction, save for the unexpected crash or clog. Later this month, a new eastbound HOV lane will open from 80th Avenue Southeast to Bellevue Way, and the second phase of the I-90 Two-Way Transit and HOV Operations project will be complete.

In 1990, a year after WSDOT completed westbound I-90’s Homer Hadley Bridge and the new express lanes, traffic levels eastbound and westbound differed greatly depending on the time of day. Typically traffic was nearly 50 percent heavier headed to Seattle in the morning and back to the Eastside in the evening. Today there’s more traffic, rush hours last about an hour longer and the difference between the number of vehicles heading east and west is relatively minimal. On average about 135,000 vehicles cross the bridge each day in either direction of the mainline and about 15,000 in the express lanes.

When the second phase of the project finishes later this month, lawmakers and transportation officials, including state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond, will cut a ribbon to reopen 80th Avenue Southeast freeway ramp on Mercer Island. After a four-day ramp closure for realignment, the ramp’s big reveal will be direct-access to a new HOV lane on eastbound I-90 mainline. Carpools and buses will have access into the center express lanes before the East Channel Bridge for continued, smooth HOV-only traffic to Bellevue Way and I-405.

Afterward, commuters will enjoy an I-90 generally clear of barriers and hardhats as our engineers work in the office on final design for the project’s third and final stage, which will start construction next year on new HOV lanes in both directions between 80th Avenue Southeast and Seattle.

As soon as the final stage is finished and the I-90 project is complete, Sound Transit will take the reins of the center express lanes and close them to traffic forever to begin building East Link light rail. By 2023 light rail will be an added travel option between Seattle and the Eastside and I-90 will begin to carry more people more efficiently and with less greenhouse gas emissions than ever before.

According to its final environmental impact statement, East Link will be equipped to carry as many as 800 people in each four-car train. It would give the center roadway a peak-hour capacity of up to 24,000 people per hour, about the same as a busy freeway with seven to 10 lanes of traffic. And it more than doubles I-90’s existing capacity while preserving existing lane space for freight trucks, passenger vehicles, carpools and buses.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

New cameras to help you know before you go

How do you know what your commute is going to be like? If you’re like a lot of people, you might check out one of our many traffic cameras. We have several hundred cameras statewide showing road conditions along a variety of big interstates and smaller state highways. Add to that our data loops that give you a color-coded clue of whether traffic is stop-and-go (black) or free-flowing (green), and our travel alerts page, and drivers can get a pretty good idea of what to expect on the road before they ever get in the car.

But some stretches of highway are what we call our blind spots. With no cameras and no data loops, the only way to know what traffic is like is to be there. Or have ESP. And on the highways, the unexpected is rarely good news.

Fortunately for drivers, we’ve recently added to our arsenal of cameras. In February, we brought 18 new cameras online between Everett and Arlington and hooked up one new camera to show conditions at the I-90/SR 18 interchange. But wait, there’s more: Later this month, seven new cameras in Pierce and Thurston counties will give drivers a bird’s-eye view of traffic between Lacey and Joint Base Lewis-McChord. And by June, drivers in southern Thurston County can use six new cameras to check their commute, too.

If you’re adding it all up, that’s 32 brand spankin’ new cameras covering a whopping 36 miles of highway: 16 miles in northern Snohomish County, one new mile along I-90 in North Bend, 11 miles in Pierce County and eight in Thurston County.  Goodbye blind spots, hello travel planning.

If you’re one of those people who’s more curious about how long your commute will take – in minutes rather than black and red dots on a map – you’re in luck, too. Travel times from Tacoma to Olympia (and vice versa) will start appearing Monday, March 12, on our Tacoma and Olympia traffic pages. Add that to the travel times already available on the Seattle Traffic page, and drivers can get a pretty good estimate of how long it will take to travel from Seattle and points north to Tacoma and points south. All with the click of a button (or two).

So the next time you head out for a road trip, or just hit the highway for your morning or evening commute, make sure to check out our new travel times and cameras. You might just save yourself some time (and frustration) now that you can know more before you go.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Corie and the giant landslide

Sections of the old SR 410
among the landslide ruins.
By guest blogger Summer Derrey

"Cooorrrriiiiee!" The employees at Eagle Rock Grocery west of Naches, echo his name like a familiar character from the sitcom Cheers. Corie is easy to spot in his orange safety vest and boots.

Most everyone in the Nile Valley recognize Corie Henke, WSDOT field engineer. He’s the guy who stood side-by -side with the residents of the Nile Valley when the mountain collapsed in Oct. 2009, crushing the highway, uplifting the river bed and flooding their properties. Corie was the lead field engineer organizing the chaos in the midst of disaster.

Property owners were told to quickly remove all their belongings, and say one last goodbye to their previously peaceful and beautiful Nile River Valley homes before the river busted through the temporary dam. Corie was the compassionate WSDOT employee begging for just a few more hours or maybe one more day so all the property owners could get there before it was too late.

Governor Gregoire declared a state of emergency, and told the Nile Valley residents they would get a temporary route in 30 days, by Thanksgiving.

Our crews gulped.

“I was just the conductor in a very large and expensive orchestra.” Corie said he did not do all of the work.

Our contracted crews built the temporary route by the deadline. They were nervous, but they did it.

Natural disasters speed up funding and permitting processes; that’s why the temporary route went up so quickly more than two years ago. Since the area is now stable, crews have to follow the rule-book for the permanent fix. Federal partners provided funding, and the legislature stepped up with the necessary match. Construction to build the permanent route along the toe of the landslide is starting in June with some preliminary work in March.

The $9.3 million project removes traffic from Nile Loop Road and reroutes it closer to the original SR 410 highway along the toe of the landslide. Crews will also stabilize the slope on the west end of the slide, and add guardrail to the new route. The intersection by the Woodshed Restaurant is also getting a few upgrades.

In anticipation of construction, Corie went out to the Nile Valley to make some field observations. On that morning, the fog held tightly, cuddled in the crevices of the landslide as if it were a permanent part of the valley. Two years after the disaster, slabs of yellow skip-striped asphalt still peek out of the rubble like an orphaned highway.

Corie’s boss asked him to take off the hard hat and put on a tie for the project’s upcoming open house. He has a saying about putting on a tie; “it’s not this field engineer’s style.” Residents probably won’t recognize Corie with a tie on, but they will recognize his bright orange safety vest and ear-to-ear grin.

Come say “hi” to Corie at the open house on March 27, 2012, from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Nile Valley Community Church at 60 Bedrock Lane in Naches.

How do we toll returning Snowbirds and other visitors?

Mention tolls and a lot of drivers think of waiting in line to hand over cash to an attendant in a booth. But thanks to technology there are no tollbooths on SR 520 – it is all-electronic, video tolling. Most frequent SR 520 flyers have a Good To Go! pass and account so toll paying is easier than ever.

But how do snowbirds returning from spending the winter in Arizona or other out-of-town visitors pay for tolls when they cross the SR 520 bridge? With video tolling, a camera on the bridge snaps license plate photos and mails a toll bill and processing fee to the vehicle owner. You can also choose to add your out-of-town guest’s license plate to your account while they are in town to have their tolls deducted from your Good To Go! account. Visitors can set up their own Short Term Account for their trip to Seattle. It’s that easy.

O.K., so it’s not always that easy. A twitter comment we received was how come Europe has been successfully tolling for dozens of years and we can’t seem to get it right? Well, again, it is not that simple. Since most drivers in our state are new to all-electronic tolling—we are new to it, too—there is a learning curve for everyone involved.

While technology has brought us all-electronic tolling and easier ways to pay, it has also brought us the typical system bugs and quirks of any new system. Whether it is a driver receiving a toll bill for another state’s plate or a driver unintentionally getting a 25-cent charge because the sensor couldn’t read their pass, the system, while 99.9 percent accurate, is not error free.

With 60,000 to 70,000 cars currently using the SR 520 bridge each day, there will certainly be processes that do not go right for some reason or another. These recurring bugs and one-time system glitches will happen for a percentage of transactions and customers every day this is something we expected and one of the reasons we have customer service representatives available in person or on the phone to answer questions

So, when snowbirds or other guest comes to town tell them to go ahead and cross the bridge but keep their change because with new tolling technology they’ll know that the bill is in the mail even if they live in another state.

Let us know your technology questions and take a look at this animation video that gives you a better idea on how our video toll system works.