Friday, September 30, 2022

Washington's Right of Way Safety Initiative addressing homeless encampments on state roadways, property

By WSDOT staff

This spring work began on the state's Right of Way Safety Initiative, a new partnership of state and local partners to find solutions for people living homeless on state highway rights of way.

This initiative is led by three state agencies – the state departments of Commerce and Transportation and the Washington State Patrol. It's a result of Gov. Jay Inslee's request to the Legislature earlier this year to address increasing safety issues along state highways. Our agencies do this work in partnership with numerous local governments and non-profit partners.

While homelessness isn't new on state lands, funding provided by Legislature this past session allows for new approaches and opportunities to augment city resources to provide shelter and housing options. Commerce has $143 million for a variety of services and types of housing, including $45 million from the initial legislative proviso.

The work has started in five counties: King, Pierce, Thurston, Snohomish and Spokane. Initial efforts are centered along some of our largest interstate corridors, but the ultimate goal is to expand these efforts as more funding and resources allow.

Early successes

This outreach and housing approach has been visible in both King and Thurston counties this year, where we've had some early successes clearing areas at five sites – some stretching over many sections of an interchange.

Since starting this work in June, two sites have been cleared in Thurston, with outreach underway at new locations. In King County three sites have been cleared, including one large site at Dearborn and I-5, and work continues for other sites. While not everyone moves into the housing offered to them, those who do have had good outcomes. Of the 77 people who have accepted housing so far, 73 – 95 percent – remain housed, a testament to the early outreach identifying needs and options. In addition, these sites have now been cleaned, modified in some instances to discourage future encampments, and have not been reinhabited.

Safety, partnerships and roles

The Right of Way Safety Initiative focuses on state highway rights of way because of the inherent safety risk these sites pose to anyone on them. Vehicles pass these locations at 70 mph or higher, regular inspections and access are needed, emergency and planned construction takes place, etc.

These areas are not safe places for anyone to be living, and the encampments make these areas unsafe for crews working on these sites, for passing motorists who can be distracted and the neighbors of these areas.

Our efforts are very much a partnership between the state agencies as well as local partners and that is vital because there are several steps that need to happen to clear an encampment and help people find shelter or housing. Those steps and the agencies who work on them are:

  1. Identify and offer shelter and services to people living at a site (local jurisdiction & service/outreach providers; funding offered by Commerce)
  2. Provide secure storage of their belongings (local jurisdiction & service/outreach providers)
  3. Ensure safety and security for people on site and work crews (local law enforcement & WSP)
  4. Restore and clean up the property (WSDOT)

Stopping the cycle is labor-intensive work

Homelessness is a challenging issue. We hear from people who are frustrated and want fast solutions, but we've found during recent years that connections to services and housing are necessary for stopping the cycle of displacement and encampment. This process takes time and work from skilled outreach teams.

Without this type of outreach, clearing an encampment merely displaces people to some other area of the community. Forcing people to move to another site is a quick, temporary action that is neither sustainable nor humane.

The state's Right of Way Safety Initiative allows for a new approach. The funding requires that housing be offered to the people living on any site we address, including outreach to individuals so we can find the best possible solution for them. This involves strong partnerships with local government and a wide swath of non-profit groups who can do that critical outreach work. This work starts long before a site is posted with a deadline for people to leave the site – and is already underway in various degrees in all five counties.

This type of work takes time, but it also allows us to make meaningful progress and put people on the path of long-term, permanent housing.

Moving forward

Each site and community are different, which is why it's so important to have meaningful, productive partnerships with local governments and outreach groups. In some cases, such as Spokane, that may mean fencing an area (for the security of those within the camp and the local neighborhood) while outreach takes place, in others it's identifying hotels or other sites that can be turned into long-term housing. It's usually a variety of approaches.

The local governments and outreach partners play key roles because they're able to identify their local needs as well as have the connections with area providers who can help meet those needs on the ground.

This work doesn't happen overnight, but we are looking forward to making more progress in the coming months which will help bring people inside as well as remove the safety risks from encampments on rights of way.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Aviation emergency services division successfully locates two survivors near Lyman following missing plane event

By Tina Werner

An 18-hour air and ground search for a missing plane along State Route 20 between Concrete and Sedro-Woolley came to a successful conclusion Monday as a search coordinated by our agency located two survivors of a crash near the small town of Lyman in Skagit County.

The survivors, the sole occupants of the plane, were spotted near a clearing which led to the foothills south of SR 20. They blended into the foliage, so crews had to look carefully to find them in the early morning hours.

The small Cessna aircraft were last seen after reportedly leaving the Concrete airport at 2:16 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 25. The plane was headed to a private airstrip the pilot owned just west of Snohomish.

This small Cessna plane went missing on Sunday, Sept. 25 between Concrete and Sedro-Woolley but on Sunday
search teams were able to successfully locate the pilot and passenger.

The search involved several agencies, but why were we involved? When a plane or helicopter goes missing, our on-call Aviation Emergency Services coordinator is notified by the Washington State Emergency Management Division or the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center. Those agencies receive notice from local emergency services.

Our pilot, who is also the search coordinator, was notified at 8:30 p.m. Sunday and immediately began air search and rescue efforts. The Skagit and Snohomish county sherriff’s offices also led a ground search Sunday night. The search continued Monday by air and ground and around 8 a.m. our pilot located the two occupants near the wooded area. They had walked about a half mile from the crash site to get to a clearing with hopes of being rescued in the daylight. They were exhausted and transported to a nearby hospital for medical treatment.

A look at the rescue site on Monday near Lyman south of SR 20. The small helicopter (circled) was onsite with a medic onboard to provide medical attention and
transport the survivors to a nearby hospital.

Crews worked in an area that was identified as a high probability range by the radar and cell phone forensics teams at the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center. While flying, our Aviation Emergency Services pilot could detect a signal on the emergency frequency which led into the foothills south of SR 20 near Lyman. That is how they were able to pinpoint the last known signal of the aircraft and locate the pilot and passenger.

The crash survivors blended into the foliage so it took a carefully trained eye
by our pilot to locate them Monday morning.

The names of the pilot and passenger are not being released at this time. The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the investigation into the crash.

We are thankful they were found alive as many searches don’t always have a positive outcome. Our thoughts and well wishes are with them as they are reunited with their families thanks to the efforts of all the crews and partners who worked on this mission. This is yet another example of the important work done by our Aviation Emergency Services team, and we thank them for their around-the-clock dedication to serve the citizens of our state.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Answering your most common questions about why we do so much weekend summer work

By Mike Allende

Fall has arrived and with it, thoughts of winter start creeping into our heads. At the same time, road workers are busily trying to get as much done as they can before the wet, cold weather arrives.

In the Seattle area, that means another busy weekend of work, including a full closure of westbound I-90 across Lake Washington, and closures of the I-5 express lanes and the southbound I-5 exit to Mercer Street, as well as the I-90/southbound I-5 ramps. This is just the latest in what has been an extremely busy summer of roadwork. You’re tired of it. We’re feeling fatigued. It’s a lot for everyone to manage and try to get around in.

We get it. We go to all the games and big events too. If there was a way to get all of this done overnight in the middle of winter, we’d do it. It’s just not possible. How come? Great question. In fact, we’ve gotten lots of good questions this summer, and we wanted to provide a handy one-stop shop to answer the most common ones. So, here you go!

During the 23 weekends of the Revive I-5 construction season, there is only one weekend where there are no large events happening, making it impossible to get work done and avoid disruptions.

Q: Why can’t you just do this work overnight like every other agency in the country?

A: We do lots of work overnight. But not ALL work can be done overnight. There just isn’t enough time. Major jobs like our Revive I-5 expansion joint project are too large to just get done overnight. Between setting up a large work area, then replacing the expansion joints – there are large pieces of metal that have to be cut out – then letting the concrete set (which can take almost a full day alone) and picking up the work zone, there isn’t enough hours overnight to get all of that done. Some work also just isn’t safe to do in the dark.

Q: But why do you have to do it during the summer when we are all out trying to enjoy the weather?

A: In short, we need predictably dry, warm weather to do work that involves a lot of concrete. Otherwise, the concrete won’t set firmly or evenly. In western Washington, that leaves a pretty small window of weather – basically June to maybe mid-September – to get a ton of really big work done.

It takes full weekends to replace the dozens of expansion joints on southbound I-5
in Seattle as part of the Revive I-5 project.

Q: Why are you closing multiple highways at the same time?

A: The Revive I-5 work involves replacing about 40 large expansion joints. Each half of the expansion joint takes quite awhile to replace, and so we need the full summer to be able to get it all done. But there is other big work that also has to get done on highways like I-90, I-405 and SR 520. With I-5 work happening basically every weekend, there really aren’t enough weekends to do work on other highways while avoiding I-5 work weekends. And, if we don’t do this work each summer we risk emergency closures when an aging expansion joint fails and that also snarls traffic – but with no advance notice.

And the big one...

Q: Why are you doing this the same weekend that (fill in the blank major event) is happening?

A: Our first weekend of Revive I-5 work was May 13-15. The last one will be about Oct. 14-16 if the weather holds out. Between those two times – encompassing 23 weekends – there was ONE weekend where there wasn’t at least one pro sports game happening. That’s not counting major festivals and events like Seafair and Comicon, holiday weekends and the many concerts at the stadiums and arenas. It’s IMPOSSIBLE to do this work and not affect a major event.

With Revive I-5 happening every weekend, we still must get work done in other areas, like this coming weekend
on I-5 near Mercer Street where work on our SR 520 project will be happening.

Again, we go to these games, concerts and events too. We know it’s frustrating to deal with closures and traffic. If this major work could be done in a way that has no effect on anything, we’d do it in a second. It’s just not possible though, and so we do the best we can to give people heads up – on our various social media, through the traditional media, on our website, via our email/text alerts and on signs – so they can plan around them.

The good news is that this construction season is almost over. The not-as-great news is, we’ve got a lot of busy summer construction seasons coming up. And they will undoubtedly effect people’s abilities to get where they need to go. So please continue to stay looped in via our social media and other outlets so you can stay informed on what’s to come. It’s not going to be easy, but with our roads aging and in need of major work, it’s vital, and we’ll do our best to keep you in the loop about what to expect.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Potential for cancelled Amtrak Cascades trains starting Friday, Sept. 16

Update 8:18 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 15

The potential freight railroad strike has been averted. Amtrak Cascades trains between Seattle and Eugene will resume normal operations today. The Amtrak long-distance trains - Coast Starlight and Empire Builder - will resume operations Friday. All affected customers are being notified.

By Janet Matkin

We're keeping a close eye on the ongoing freight rail labor contract negotiations and working with our partners at the Oregon Department of Transportation and Amtrak about what this means for our Amtrak Cascades service.

The negotiations do not involve Amtrak or the Amtrak workforce but still do affect train travel. While we are hopeful that parties will reach a resolution, Amtrak has now begun phased adjustments to its service in preparation for a possible freight rail service interruption later this week.

The train tracks on which Amtrak Cascades trains run in Washington and Oregon are primarily owned by BNSF Railway and Union Pacific. These railroad companies control all train movements in this region and therefore the potential strike of their workers will affect Amtrak Cascades trains. Our trains cannot operate without the BNSF and Union Pacific dispatchers.

As a precautionary measure, Amtrak has secured buses for Thursday, Sept. 15, that will transport Amtrak Cascades passengers if necessary, ensuring train passengers are not stranded mid-trip. However, if a strike occurs, it will result in complete service disruptions starting on Friday, Sept. 16,  and there are no buses available this weekend to provide alternative transportation options. Ticketed customers are being notified of the potential situation and Amtrak is offering to change their reservation to another travel date, waive any difference in fare for departures through Oct. 31 or provide a full refund without cancellation fees.

Additionally, Amtrak has already suspended service on its two long-distance trains out of Portland and Seattle – the Empire Builder that travels to Chicago and the Coast Starlight that travels to Los Angeles. These adjustments were necessary to ensure trains can reach their terminals before freight railroad service interruption if a resolution in negotiations is not reached.

We know disruptions and uncertainty are frustrating and we're working to keep passengers informed of any changes and thank you for your patience and understanding. Amtrak Cascades trains will resume running as soon as the labor negotiations are resolved.

An Amtrak Cascades train on the tracks – we’re closely monitoring a labor dispute
that may disrupt service starting Friday, Sept. 16.