Friday, May 14, 2021

How and why messages on highway signs are created

Coordination with Governor's office and Department of Health determines safety messaging

There's a lot of thought and coordination that goes into any communication we do, whether it's on social media, on our website or on our signage. It's never one person deciding what and how to say something.

Since the beginning of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we've been instructed by the Governor's office to use our digital highway signs to support messaging about staying healthy. We are one of more than 30 states across the country using similar signs for this type of messaging. Those messages have encouraged mask use, physical distancing and, most recently, getting vaccinated. We work with the Governor's office as well as the Department of Health in crafting the messages.

While we typically use these signs for traffic messages, federal and WSDOT guidelines state they can be used for certain other circumstances, including "safety messages" and "emergency homeland security messages." Governor Inslee and President Trump, and subsequently President Biden, have declared emergencies in response to the pandemic. The Federal Highway Administration has also clarified that the use of these signs is allowed to support the current national emergency and the federal Centers for Disease Control also issued guidance for COVID-19 messages on VMS boards. Our messages follow these messaging themes.

COVID public service announcement (PSA) messaging also does not replace other messages to motorists about traffic, crash and other vital emergency information. Like other PSA messages such as DUI enforcement and seatbelt use, they do not take the place of vital emergency information. If there is a need to message about crashes, construction, congestion, etc., any PSA type messaging is bumped. 

We know some people are frustrated by highway signage featuring public health messaging. It's also easy to forget that the people who work for government agencies are human beings. If you reach out, we ask that you do so in a constructive, respectful way. We all have jobs to do, and we do them the best we can.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Cleanup at former market and gas station property begins this year

By Steve Peer

In 2019 we acquired a piece of property next to State Route 520 in Seattle which was long occupied by the Montlake Market and 76 gas station. We needed to buy the property and remove the two businesses to enable major improvements to the SR 520 corridor, including reconstruction of the Montlake Boulevard interchange, construction of a landscaped, three-acre lid over the freeway, and the addition of bus/carpool lanes on the highway. 

During the acquisition process, we confirmed the presence of contaminated soils on the property caused by the decades-long operation of the gas station and its associated operations. As the new owner of the property, we're committed to cleaning up the contamination, which will start later this year.
These pictures from 2017 show the former 76 gas station (left) and the Montlake Market, which formerly operated at the property in Seattle's Montlake neighborhood that we acquired in 2019 and plan to clean up.
Testing the property to better understand the source, type, and spread of contamination

Prior to purchasing the property, we conducted extensive testing to better understand the type of contamination and how far it spread. Here are the four key findings the testing confirmed and the steps we've taken as a result. 
  • Underground storage tanks: Four tanks are buried at the property: three stored gasoline and one stored waste oil. In 2020 we pumped out and cleaned the underground gasoline-storage tanks so they can be safely left in the ground until crews are ready to clean up the site.

  • Type of contamination: We found petroleum-based contaminants on the property. Based on these types of contaminants and the property's decades-long history of use by a gas station and associated activities, the contamination relates to spills and/or leaks from these gas station operations.

  • Location of contamination: The contamination is in the soil and groundwater. It does not appear to have reached private properties, but it has spread to adjacent areas below Montlake Boulevard and the eastbound SR 520 off-ramp to Montlake Boulevard. We're closely coordinating with King County regarding their combined sewer and the City of Seattle about the cleanup activities that will extend into Montlake Boulevard and the eastbound SR 520 off-ramp to Montlake Boulevard. We expect some traffic impacts during the cleanup work. 

  • Community and environmental safety: Our testing confirmed that the contaminants that are present are not currently affecting the health and safety of community members or water supplies. During the cleanup work some odor and dust will be generated that will be monitored to verify that it does not pose a substantial risk to the nearby neighborhoods. We will take all appropriate safety measures, including coordinating with the proper regulatory agencies and providing any necessary public notifications. 
If you're interested in learning more about the contaminants and testing, read the Montlake Texaco - Remedial Investigation Report on the state Department of Ecology website. 

Cleanup could start as early as this summer

Over the past several months we've worked with Graham, the SR 520 Montlake Project contractor, to develop a plan for their cleanup of the property. The work is expected to take place in three phases. 
  • Phase 1 – Tank removal and on-property soil removal: Later this summer, crews will remove the four underground storage tanks from the former gas station property and begin excavation and removal of contaminated soil.

  • Phase 2 – In-street soil removal: Crews will take advantage of the already scheduled SR 513 Montlake Bridge closure – planned  for Aug. 9 to Sept. 2 – to excavate and remove the contaminated soil that extends underneath Montlake Boulevard and the eastbound SR 520 off-ramp to Montlake Boulevard. Doing the work during the SR 513 closure will reduce the number of street-closure days needed to complete this cleanup work and will shorten the overall construction impact to the community.

  • Phase 3 – Addressing groundwater contamination, filling with clean soil, and monitoring contamination concentrations: After the contaminated soil is removed, some contamination will still remain in the groundwater. Crews will place compounds that add oxygen to the deep soil and groundwater. This procedure will increase the speed of naturally occurring processes that clean groundwater. Crews will then backfill the excavated site with clean soil and top the site with asphalt. We expect crews to complete the work by the end of September. Finally, for at least the following year as the natural cleanup process continues, we will monitor the concentration of the site's groundwater contamination to verify that its decline meets state standards.
You can learn more about the plan in the recently submitted Remedial Action Plan on the state Department of Ecology website.
Here is the approximate area of the former 76 gas station and Montlake Market property and extent into Montlake Boulevard and the eastbound SR 520 off-ramp to Montlake Boulevard that we plan to excavate, remove contamination and refill with clean soil.
Working with experts

We enrolled our Montlake property in the Department of Ecology's Voluntary Cleanup Program in 2019. Under the program, we closely coordinate with Ecology and receive the department's technical assistance. The goal is receiving Ecology's approval that all necessary cleanup is completed – known as a "Notice of No Further Action." You can learn more about the voluntary program and our Montlake cleanup project on Ecology's Montlake Texaco webpage.

Who pays for all this?

All testing, planning, construction, and monitoring work is being initially funded through the budget for the Montlake Project. The cleanup work is estimated to cost somewhere between $3.5-$5 million. 

We're seeking reimbursement for our cleanup costs from the previous gas station operator and land owners pursuant to the Washington State Model Toxic Control Act, and consistent with the settlement agreement through which we acquired the property. 

Completing the cleanup and selling the Montlake Property

Once monitoring shows contamination levels consistently meet state standards and all Montlake Project construction is complete, including street and sidewalk improvements, we plan to sell the property through a public process at fair market value as required by state law. The property is zoned as "Neighborhood Commercial," which the City of Seattle defines as "a small shopping area that provides primarily convenience retail sales and services to the surrounding residential neighborhood." 

Keeping community members informed

We're eager to remove the site's pollution and restore the property for future use, though we recognize this work requires temporary disturbance to community members and travelers. 

We'll have more details about what neighbors can expect during the cleanup as the work nears. To stay in the loop, we invite you to: 

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Walking and rolling into the future together

By Barb Chamberlain

It's National Bicycle Month and a good time to roll out the completed State Active Transportation Plan, 2020 and Beyond. Part 1, that is – there's more to come later this year as we finish work on needed policies and performance measures. Part 1 meets our state law requirement to prepare the plan with a statewide strategy and needs assessment. 

With a decade's worth of data, the plan lays out deeply troubling safety issues and identifies changes needed to address them. Vulnerable road users now make up about 21% of all traffic deaths – that's far out of proportion to the fatality rates for all other modes. And those fatal crashes happen more often in places with low-income households and places with higher numbers of Black, Indigenous, and people of color. State routes through population centers also have a disproportionate number of crashes, and driving speed is a major factor.

Thousands of people across the state engaged with the plan's development and we received hundreds of comments from them earlier this year. We heard the same things again and again: Finish the sidewalks. Make it safer to cross the road. Slow traffic where lots of people walk and roll. Deal with the inequitable effects of the past. Connect the beautiful trails we already have into a larger network. Make it easier to use healthy and sustainable ways to get around.
Among the most common pieces of feedback we received from the public is the need to improve and add sidewalks across the state.
You'll find all of these topics and more in the plan, which is notable for being the first-ever evaluation of 6,977 lane-miles of state right of way, specifically for how it works for active transportation use. The results aren't really a surprise; past decisions prioritized the needs of people moving in motor vehicles, rather than those of people walking, biking, or rolling. 

While the plan is fairly technical and written to conform to requirements of state and federal law, it begins with the understanding that these are the most fundamental forms of transportation and we need to make them work well for people and for the planet. We started building a transportation system – this plan will help us finish it.
Having safe routes for people on foot, bike and other non-motorized modes of travel to get around is a priority of the Active Transportation Plan.

So, the plan's done. Why would you read it now? You'd read it if you want to:
  • Understand the challenges we face if we are to meet our state safety goal of zero traffic deaths. 
  • Understand how decisions about roadway design affected walk/bike safety and mobility, with especially significant effects in places where more lower-income, Black, Indigenous, and people of color live. 
  • Learn about tools such as speed management and improvements at crossings, including ramp junctions – improvements we need not just on state routes, but on local streets and roads as well.
  • Get a sense of how land-use changes have created population centers around state highways that look, feel, and function like towns, without having the sidewalks and bike lanes they need. 
  • Understand how we arrived at a "snapshot in time" high-level cost estimate of what it would take to address gaps on 1,685 miles of state routes through population centers. 
  • Consider the opportunity to connect and complete trails and designate more U.S. Bicycle Routes for a statewide bikeways and trails network. 
  • Ask your local government officials when they last updated their active transportation plan and how they can work to align local network connections and crossings with future changes on state routes.

While biking on the closed section of the SR 20 North Cascades Highway is fun, creating safe infrastructure everywhere for those who walk and roll is a key part of the plan.

Our staff are already developing next steps to move the analysis from the plan's Part 1 into practice while they work to get Part 2 ready for public review sometime this summer.

To receive future updates specifically for the plan, subscribe to the ATP E-News. For active transportation news updates including grant opportunities, webinars, and activities of WSDOT and partners subscribe to the WSDOT Walk + Roll E-News.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Planning for the unexpected: When it comes to work zone safety, that’s just part of the job

By Victoria Miller

When you work on one of the largest highway construction projects in the state, both in terms of dollars and project area, you learn to plan for the unexpected.

Chris Cooper is a construction manager on our I-405 Renton to Bellevue Widening and Express Toll Lanes Project. The Tacoma native worked in construction in the South Pacific and Canada before moving back to the Seattle area about four years ago.

Chris has worked as a construction manager for Flatiron West, Inc., for almost five years. He’s worked on projects all across the state, including the State Route 520 West Approach Bridge North, the Lander Street Project in downtown Seattle and seismic retrofitting on I-5 in Tacoma.
Chris Cooper, a construction manager on our I-405 Renton to Bellevue project, has seen more than his fair share of dangerous work zone incidents while working on our highways.

With all his experience, Chris knows it’s important to expect the unexpected. Planning for the unexpected may sound almost impossible, but when safety is your number one priority, it is a necessity. 

“When you have vehicles moving so fast so close to the work zone, you stretch yourself to think about all aspects of the situation,” Chris said. “How can you go that extra mile to make sure you have a system to protect the public and your employees?”

Close calls that cause your heart to skip a beat

Close calls and injuries are an unfortunate fact of life for many highway workers. The one that stands out in Chris’s mind was a near miss that happened during a project on SR 520. 

A driver followed a dump truck into a ramp closure area and sped up to more than 60 mph, causing the vehicle to hit the median barrier. Four nearby workers could have been injured, or even killed. Just before almost hitting the workers, the driver’s vehicle glanced off an empty work trailer crews had parked next to the work zone. This caused the vehicle to careen by the workers instead of through them. Had the trailer not been parked where it was, the incident could have ended fatally. As a result, Chris’s crew now parks equipment directly between live traffic and the active work zone.

“When you’re working with live traffic, there’s an incredible amount of interactions with the public that are close calls, or incidents that cause your heart to skip a beat,” he said. “It’s crazy how some of these incidents can be. … You try to plan for every contingency.”
Away from work, Chris likes spending time outdoors with his family, including a 2018 hike at Mt. Catherine near Snoqualmie Pass.

Do your part

Almost 95 percent of people injured in work zone crashes on Washington highways are drivers, their passengers or pedestrians, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to be safe and alert in and around work zones.

We ask all drivers near work zones to:
  • Slow Down – Drive the posted speeds, they're there for your safety.
  • Be Kind – Our workers are helping to keep you safe and improve the roadways.
  • Pay Attention – Both to workers directing you and surrounding traffic; put down your phone when behind the wheel.
  • Stay Calm – Expect delays, leave early or take an alternate route if possible; no meeting or appointment is worth risking someone’s life.
Making it home each night

Chris has many reasons to make it home safely at the end of each day.

The most important is spending time with his wife of 16 years, Deah, and his two sons, Ben (age 14) and Gavin (9). He also enjoys riding his snowmobile and fly-fishing.

In his free time, Chris also gives back to his community by coaching the Cascade Orienteering Club, which is competitive navigation using a map and compass outdoors. He coaches elementary, middle and high school orienteering club teams in the Tahoma area.
Going home to his family safely each night so they can enjoy time together – like this 2019 trip to Disneyland – is priority No. 1 for Chris.

He also loves his job, even with the risks.

“We love working for the public and producing something that you’re proud to walk home from at the end of the day,” he said.

Next time you’re driving near a work zone, please think about the people behind the barriers like Chris. Remember that they are trying to protect you as well as their employees and that they want everyone to make it home safely at the end of each day.

The Renton to Bellevue project construction will continue to ramp up this summer. Ongoing work will be focused in the Renton area of I-405 and work, overall, will continue for the next few years, with the project anticipated to open to traffic in 2024. Stay up to date on closures and upcoming night work on our I-405 construction updates webpage and our Renton to Bellevue project webpage.