Monday, January 13, 2020

Spinouts, downed power lines and trees create challenging 24 hours on US 2

3:45 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 16
US 2 will fully open at 4 p.m. across Stevens Pass! Crews spent the day clearing the final downed power lines and addressing potentially hazardous trees, followed by plowing and treating the highway. While drivers may still see utility crews in the area, the highway is fully open in time for the weekend. The highway closed on Sunday after heavy snowfall brought down power lines and trees between Gold Bar and the Stevens Pass summit, creating hazardous travel conditions. We know this has been a stressful and at times frustrating week and we extend a huge thank you to the residents of the area and the rest of the public for their patience throughout. We also offer our gratitude to all the crews who worked to keep people safe and reopen the road, including our maintenance crew, the Washington State Patrol, Snohomish PUD, Puget Sound Energy and King County and Snohomish County Emergency Management. Please be cautious as you travel through the area!

9:25 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 16
While US 2 remains closed between Skykomish and Stevens Pass, we have resumed work in that area. While conditions were too dangerous to work overnight, at daylight it was safe enough for our crews to return to the area to remove trees at risk of falling and for utilities to deal with downed power lines. Once the trees and utility lines are clear, we will use a snow blower and plows to clear the road. At this time there is still no estimate for when it will reopen. We will update this blog as soon as conditions change.

2:00 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 15
An additional portion of US 2 is now open for local access up to Skykomish for people living between Money Creek tunnel (milepost 46) and Skykomish. US 2 remains closed between Skykomish and the Stevens Pass summit (mile post 64) as that stretch remains unsafe for travel as there are still power lines across the roadway. As has been the case all day, high winds are in the forecast and the highway could close again depending on conditions and any associated risk to the traveling public. We will update as we get further information.

10:00 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 15
Some good news for the US 2 Gold Bar/Skykomish closure. The highway is temporarily reopened to Money Creek at milepost 46. That said, high winds are in the forecast and the road could close again for safety depending on conditions. The road remains closed from Money Creek to Skykomish as that stretch remains unsafe for travel as there are still power lines in the roadway. We will update as we get further information.

3:45 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 14
Our crews were back out at US 2 in the Gold Bar/Skykomish area on Tuesday. They found several dozen more trees that fell overnight. There are more trees leaning overhead loaded with snow and there is more snow in the forecast Tuesday night into Wednesday. We are working to clear what we can during the daylight hours, and utility crews are also onsite trying to restore their lines. On Wednesday, we will be out with additional crews to continue working but there is still no estimate for reopening.
By Frances Fedoriska

A fierce weekend winter storm brought down power lines and trees and led to the overnight closure of US 2 between Gold Bar and Skykomish on Sunday, Jan. 12, leaving many travelers huddled in for the night and into Monday morning. We know this was frustrating for travelers as well as the crews working through the night trying to provide options or reopen roadways, but safety has to be the driving force behind all our decisions. And on Sunday – and today as well – the risk of downed trees and falling power lines was just too high to reopen the road.

On Monday morning, utility crews were able to access the downed power lines to begin restoration work. Once the lines are restored and the area is secure, our maintenance crews will remove any downed trees and assess the area for any additional hazards. This work can’t be safely done in the dark so it was suspended Sunday night until Monday morning, and because evaluation is ongoing as power lines are removed, the closure will remain in place through the night of Monday, Jan. 13, until further notice. We know travelers would like an estimate for reopening, but at this point conditions and needed evaluations just don’t allow us to provide one. (Those with urgent needs should contact local emergency services).
Left: Crews need to assess the potential hazards of trees on US 2 in the Gold Bar/Skykomish area before the highway is safe enough to reopen. Right: Trees leaning under the weight of heavy snow continue to be safety risks
on US 2 in the Gold Bar/Skykomish area.

So what happened?
A combination of worsening weather exacerbated both travel and road clearing plans across US 2 on Sunday.

Backups and closures started up on Stevens Pass in the afternoon around 2:30 p.m. due to collisions and spin outs and while that was being cleared, deteriorating weather increased the amount of snow on the roadway while vehicles waited to be allowed back through the area. Crews were able to start clearing backed up traffic off the pass – both to the east and west – around 5 p.m. Then, at just before 6 p.m. trees and power lines came down on US 2 near Skykomish, making conditions dangerous for both response crews and travelers. At one point a tree struck one of the work trucks – thankfully no one was injured – and at 7 p.m. it became clear that the road needed to be closed in both directions.

The closure was needed to keep crews and travelers safe, but it also meant that traffic that had headed west down off the pass was now stuck between closures with no ability to go east or west. Crews responded to begin trying to clear the debris and assess the situation, but conditions made it extremely difficult to do so accurately.

With the utility agencies, State Patrol and us, there were a lot of moving parts and teams worked to try to coordinate what was going on and what the plan was. Unfortunately there weren’t a lot of good options for travelers given the conditions.
Left: Leaning and fallen trees continue to pose safety risks for drivers and road workers on US 2 near Gold Bar and Skykomish. Right: Several trees blocked US 2, necessitating the closure
of the highway in the Skyview/Gold Bar area.

For some time, drivers at Skykomish were advised that they could head back east from Skykomish over Stevens Pass and stay in Leavenworth/Wenatchee or go around using Blewett and Snoqualmie passes. Their other option was to stay in Skykomish, but there would be no estimate on when the highway might reopen.

As Sunday night slipped into early Monday morning, conditions reached a point at Stevens Pass that sending people eastbound up and over the pass was no longer possible and word was delivered that people should find a safe location in Skykomish and wait until Monday morning when crews were able to better assess the situation, though later that very early morning some other vehicles were allowed to go eastbound. Some convoys were able to get some of those vehicles out Monday but conditions are still challenging and the closure remains in place.

Getting stranded overnight can turn a fun day at the pass into a long, difficult night. That’s why it’s so vital this time of year that people who are traveling, especially in higher elevations and mountain passes, be prepared for winter conditions, including possible closures and delays. They can come with little warning and last for an extended time. We worked with partners to keep people informed as conditions changed but we’re also always looking for ways to improve those efforts.

While our crews work to clear closures as quickly as possible, their safety and that of the public is always the main priority and we can’t reopen roads until we are confident that conditions are safe for everyone.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Year 2020 – New Lakewood overpasses and ramp connections come into focus

By Cara Mitchell

Update: January 10, 2020
Due to the weather, Atkinson Construction has rescheduled the two-week closure of the Washington Avenue and Berkeley Street intersection to begin Monday, Jan. 20.
Year 2020 marks the beginning of a new decade, and inevitably, new changes for travelers. This will be especially true for commuters who use the Berkeley Street overpass to Camp Murray and Madigan Army Medical Center on Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Over the past year, commuters have watched a new Berkeley Street overpass rise up from shoulders of Interstate 5. Starting mid-January, design build contractor Guy F. Atkinson Construction will begin connecting local streets to the ramps of the new overpass. This work involves a series of local street and ramp closures that Tillicum businesses, residents and commuters will want to pay attention to.
The new I-5/Berkeley Street interchange will open in early 2020.

As early as January 13, the intersection of Washington Avenue and Berkeley Street will close around-the-clock for two weeks so crews can rebuild the roadway surface that leads to the new Berkeley Street overpass. During the closure, signed detours will be in place.

Once the intersection reopens, the contractor will begin a weekend closure of the old Berkeley Street overpass, allowing crews to connect the new overpass to the Madigan Army Medical Center gate.  During the weekend closure, Tillicum residents and businesses will need to use the Thorne Lane interchange to access I-5. Travelers who normally use the Madigan Gate will need to use alternate gates to reach JBLM.

At the end of the weekend closure, the new interchange will be open for all travelers, except for Berkeley Street to northbound I-5 on-ramp from Tillicum. This on-ramp will remain closed for an additional 15 days. Access to northbound I-5 will be maintained for JBLM drivers coming out of the Madigan Gate.

Once this work is complete, sometime towards the end of February, the new Berkeley Street Bridge will be completely open to travelers.

Thorne Lane interchange
Once the Berkeley Street overpass is fully open, construction activity at Thorne Lane will notably increase. The existing overpass at Thorne Lane is being replaced by two new ones. In fact, one is already finished. The second overpass that is almost 24-feet tall and spans all lanes of I-5 and the railroad, will have its bridge deck poured starting in March. Around the same time, Union Avenue between Spruce Street and Thorne Lane will undergo a long-term closure so the profile of Union Street can be raised to match the height of the new overpass.

Over on Murray Road, a new roundabout is being constructed to connect the northbound I-5 off- and on- ramps with the new Thorne Lane overpass. Once complete, this roundabout will help move traffic through the area without the delays that the current signalized intersection brings.

It's too early to say when the new Thorne Lane overpasses will fully open. A lot can happen during wet winter and spring months that have the potential to delay projects. We will continue to provide updates as construction progresses.
A new I-5/Thorne Lane interchange is taking shape with two overpasses and roundabouts that will keep travelers moving.

I-5 gets a new elevation
Here's some highway trivia you may not know: There's a pump house on the shoulder of northbound I-5 near the old Berkeley Street overpass that has a 1950's era pump running inside of it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The purpose of this pump is to keep water off of the lanes of I-5 as the highway sits below the water table at this location.

One big improvement we included in this project was to raise the elevation of I-5 at Berkeley Street. Maintaining water pumps is an ongoing maintenance expense we'd like to eliminate. To raise the elevation of I-5 to new heights, the old Berkeley Street overpass has to be removed. This will occur shortly after the new Berkeley Street overpass is open.

Once removed, crews will begin shifting lanes of I-5, making room for fill material to be put into place to raise the elevation of the highway. We will keep people moving by maintaining three lanes of traffic in both directions during construction.

About those closures…
Construction crews like to minimize closures just as much as you. They also need to finish the project. Up until now, the new overpasses at Berkeley Street and Thorne Lane have been built with the contractor closing lanes and ramps only at night when traffic volumes are much lower. When it comes time to connect all the local streets to the new overpasses, sometimes we have to implement longer-term closures. We know it is an inconvenience, which is why we are giving you advance notice on what to expect so you can plan ahead.

There will be a lot of new changes in 2020 for both of these intersections. We appreciate your continued patience while crews finish this important work. Please continue to watch your speed in work zones and give construction crews the room they need to finish this important project.

Follow the latest closure and detour information for all Pierce County maintenance and construction projects online at

Friday, January 3, 2020

Tumbling into the new year

By Summer Derrey and Mike Allende

Some of our maintenance team and the Washington State Patrol welcomed in 2020 in a pretty unusual way. A 9-million-cubic-yard unusual way.

Tumbleweeds stacked 20-to-30-feet high blocked a two-mile section of SR 240 west of Richland near the Tri-Cities on New Year's Eve and into the first day of the new year. The Tumblegeddon – as the Washington State Patrol trooper on the scene dubbed it – buried five abandoned vehicles. Some people were also trapped for several hours in their vehicles by the thorny debris, and hundreds of drivers had to detour or turn around. Poor visibility, a sea of tumbleweeds, gusty winds and the dark night was no laughing matter for those involved. Fortunately, no injuries were reported.

"It was a new experience," maintenance worker Jason Vandine said. "We'd dealt with tumbleweeds before, but not to that extent. To have a road closed because of it was different. And then not knowing the extent of it because it was so dark. I opened the first section and thought we were in business to let traffic go and then found out there's a whole other section covered. You couldn't get a good perspective."

Over the course of 10 hours, our crews, with help from the State Patrol and Hanford Police, worked to clear the tumbleweeds. WSP kept track of the vehicles, and some were removed to make way for snow plows – yes, snow plows – to clear the road. Eight of our maintenance workers in the plows ran over, shaved down and pushed the dead Russian thistles off the highway.

Vandine said once vehicles started stopping because of the" tumbleweed blizzard," everything changed as they had to slow down operations to account for the people and vehicles. One of the biggest helps was the temperature being warm enough that they didn't have to worry about people freezing. Plow operators had to drive under 10 mph to avoid obstacles such as vehicles that were hard to see through the darkness and the debris.
Our maintenance crews work to uncover a semi truck buried by tumbleweeds
on SR 240 on New Year's Eve
"You just couldn't see what might be in the piles, if there were cars and people in the middle of it, so we couldn't just plow through them," Vandine said. "We were lucky because a lot of things could've gone wrong because it was so hard to see anything. I give the public a lot of credit, they did a good job with what was going on."

Our priorities were making sure the public and our workers were safe first, getting the road opened second. Communication was key, especially between our crews and the State Patrol as troopers worked as spotters for our crews as they dug into the piles of debris.
Nope, not snow. This is a huge pile of tumbleweeds on SR 240
near Richland that a snowplow is working to clear.
Our crews also had to be careful to avoid the tumbleweeds wrapping around the undercarriage of the trucks and puncturing a hole that would lead to air leaks. And while the wind dying down helped, it also hurt because it was needed to help push the debris along.

"I had tumbleweeds just engulf the plow truck on its sides, on top and in front," Vandine said. "The people would try to let us know where their vehicles were so we could try to keep track of what was there and where so we could avoid damaging any property and so we could keep everyone safe."

While tumbleweeds aren't an unusual sight on the east side of our state, the amount of them and the fact that they actually closed a road and buried vehicles, was enough to draw attention from news outlets all over the country.

"I've worked here for about 20 years and although there are a lot of tumbleweeds blowing out there in the desert, I have never seen that much at once, and that deep," said Ryan Miller, one of our maintenance supervisors. Kara Shute, maintenance superintendent for that area, agreed that she hasn't seen a tumbleweed storm of this magnitude in 35 years.

It's believed that heavy rain and strong, gusty winds up to 30 mph loosened the weeds and produced the unusual event. Fencing along the shoulder of the highway was able to catch some of the weeds. Our crew estimated that had all of the tumbleweeds been hauled away, it would've taken at least 5,000 truckloads.
High winds created a tumbleweed blizzard that buried several vehicles on SR 240 near Richland on New Year's Eve.

Vandine said it was similar to large snow events but the big difference was with snow, we often know it's coming and can prepare ahead of time. This rolled in so quickly that it was all about catching – and then keeping – up.

While more work is needed to remove the debris from the berms, our crews are keeping a close eye on the weather in order to respond should a Tumblegeddon 2: The Tumbleweeds Strike Back, happen. If it does and you find yourself in the middle of a storm of tumbleweeds, State Patrol Trooper Chris Thorson says to treat it like a blizzard. If you can't see the road, pull off to the right shoulder as far as you can, activate your hazards and wait for help to arrive.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

How we work to prevent and respond to unstable slopes and landslides

By WSDOT staff

A lot of people think of pavement when they hear our name, but we're often just as focused on the land around – and above and below – our roadways. Given Washington's abundant rain and topography there are hundreds of slopes statewide that affect our roadways and travelers – and that's where our local and specialized crews come in.

We work hard to prevent slides when we can and to quickly clear roadways if debris does close a highway. We also need the public's help whenever they encounter a slide area or road closure.

Do not get out and attempt to clear a slide, leave the area and call 911 to notify authorities. Please, never drive around a closure sign – they're there for your protection and we need everyone's help to ensure the road can be cleared as quickly as possible.
A massive slide in January 2016 blocked US 2 in Pine Canyon near Waterville and
took more than two weeks to fully clear the roadway.

Before a slide

We're often able to start monitoring and planning a response to an area in danger of sliding before large amounts of a slope slide. Often one of our crews, residents or one of our partner agencies notice something amiss above or below a roadway.

That's what happened in early October 2017 when a slow-moving landslide east of Yakima on Rattlesnake Ridge threatened residents and travelers on Interstate 82. Several agencies worked together to research and monitor the risk while also planning for a worst-case catastrophic slide – including placing barriers near the roadway and installing monitoring equipment to track and better understand the land movement.
During the initial Rattlesnake Ridge slide monitoring, large freight containers were placed along
Thorp Road block any rockfall debris from reaching I-82.

The Rattlesnake Ridge movement has slowed since it was initially discovered and, based on on-going monitoring data, it now appears it will continue to move slowly to the south and fall into a quarry pit until it stabilizes.

Slide response and reopening roads

Mother Nature is often the ultimate determining factor of when and where a slope gives way. When that happens, our crews work to clear the road as soon as it's safe to do so – which sometimes requires assessment by our specialized Geo Tech crews to determine if the slope has stopped moving.

In July on US 97, the forecast had crews out on the roadway looking for trouble areas, making them first on the scene when mudflow topped the roadway and spilled on to adjacent train tracks. The slide was still moving as night drew near, so we closed the road overnight between Wenatchee and Chelan rather than put crews in a dangerous situation. We know these closures are disruptive, but our first priority is the safety of our crews and travelers.

More than mud, our maintenance crews chase rock, particularly in cold weather. When there's been a stretch of below-freezing temperatures and a Chinook blows in (unseasonably warm weather up to 45 degrees), that sets the stage for rocks to fall. Sometimes it's just little spatters of gravel and pebbles, sometimes rocks as large as basketballs.

Sometimes the situation calls for an emergency contract to scale the slope – remove loose or potentially unstable material – before a road can reopen. A few years ago, a large rockfall in Pine Canyon closed US 2 for several weeks in late winter, leading to a large scaling project in which crews removed loose rock and debris to prevent further slides.

Different conditions closed SR 20 near Loup Loup this spring, where thousands of yards of material fell on the downslope of the roadway, undermining the pavement nearly to the centerline. Cleaning that up and rebuilding the roadway required constructing an access road to the bottom of the drainage and lasted more than a month.
Crews begin clearing rocks that fell on the roadway along US 97 near Knapps Tunnel in the Chelan area.

Many of the routes where slides are common are rural highways through mountain passes, canyons and along rivers with few options for detour – which makes closures particularly disruptive. We know access is vital and an expedited reopening of the highway is always the goal, but safety remains our top priority when determining when and how to reopen the road to the public.

Long-term slide repair

Slides, particularly repeat events, often require work beyond cleanup to proactively stabilize the slope against future landslides. Because each slope is unique, there is no one-size-fits-all approach and often a number of factors come into play when prioritizing work in our slope stabilization program. We create a plan for work each year, but severe weather also plays a factor or alters our schedules.

In winter 2015, for example, after several days of heavy rain, the slope above northbound I-5 near Woodland gave way, closing the roadway with dirt, debris and rocks across all three lanes. The road was closed for two days while it was cleared and one lane remained closed for two months while crews worked around the clock to stabilize the slope with a series of rock anchors.
After a 2015 slide along I-5 near Woodland, crews drilled holes and placed and grouted steel rods
50 feet into the hillside to stabilize the slope.

In late December 2017, heavy rain caused the slope above SR 4 near Stella to give way, closing all lanes. In that case, crews determined there was an ongoing threat of additional slides and placed shipping containers to block debris from getting onto the roadway short term until a more permanent fix could be made. Then, in the summer, the slopes were excavated and stabilized and a damaged portion of debris flow fence was repaired.

While the repairs and timing may be different – and timing may not always be as quick as we'd hope – the end goal of all slope stabilization work is the same. We're working to keep the roads clear and people and goods moving.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Spokane message boards get "lit" for the holiday season

By Ryan Overton

The holiday season is upon us. Kids are on winter break. Travelers are heading over the river and through the woods to grandmother's house. It is a very busy time of year. One that involves celebration, family and friends. And as always, we want you to be safe on the roads.

If you have driven through Spokane recently, you may have noticed more messages on the reader boards that sit over Interstate 90, US 2, US 395 and US 195. We're trying a pilot program to do more safety messages to get drivers attention and remind them of safe driving habits. Previously we used these types of messages for several years on a system of portable message boards on State Route 26 and US 195 near Pullman.

How it started

There had been several serious or fatal collisions on the routes we're testing messages on. About 17 percent were related to distracted driving, 7 percent being right-of-way or unsafe passing, another 7 percent were sleeping behind the wheel. The rest were related to animal strikes. In 2016 we collaborated with Washington State University and the Washington State Patrol on the #BeSafeCougs campaign to help highway safety messages reach WSU students/staff/families.

Our part of the campaign involves safety messages on the portable message boards when students begin school in August then again around Thanksgiving and Apple Cup, winter break, spring break and the end of the school year. These dates were chosen as times of high volume of traffic coming to and leaving the university.

At first messages were simple – "Don't text and drive" or "Tired? Take a break". Since then messages have evolved to become relatable and personable to students such as "Santa is watching, put down the phone" or "Who you going to call? No one you're driving!" The most popular message this year has been "Ralphie put down phone, you'll txt your eye out!"

By using more creative and relatable messaging we are reaching a larger audience and able to cut through the white noise of typical messaging and get people talking about it. We also try to keep the number of days they are up limited to keep them fresh and noticeable.

Moving from portable signs to permanent

With about 127,000 vehicles moving through Spokane daily, there is opportunity to reach a large audience. In years past the message boards have been reserved for Amber Alerts, blocking collisions and the occasional emphasis patrol. We saw an opportunity to use them to promote safe driving habits, especially around the holidays.

The first message ran on November 26 ahead of Thanksgiving reading "Feast your eyes on the road, not your phone".

For the past week the messages are part of a DUI emphasis patrol that Washington State Patrol is doing. The messages have included "You're not Rudolph, don't drive lit!" and "Don't drive Blitzen, use a sober driver!" Both messages encourage people not to drink and drive this holiday season. We will continue to put up new messages through January 2.

Starting January 9, students heading back to WSU will also get a fresh set of messages displayed.

Who creates the messages?

We have a team that comes up with the messages that includes people from our traffic office, maintenance, communications and staff from the Spokane Regional Transportation Management Center. We generally meet once a month or two weeks prior to any of the higher-volume traffic events that would involve WSU. We brainstorm ideas and talk about each one, picking usually between 6-8 messages to put on the portable boards. In these meetings we also discuss when, where and how long to place messages around the Spokane region on the permanent message boards.

Can we expect more fun messages?

Absolutely! In the coming months there will be more messages that will go up on the permanent message boards. We also have a partnership with weather forecasters to bring warnings about heavy forecasted snow. There will also be other emphasis patrols by Washington State Patrol that will offer more opportunity to be creative in our messaging. Finally, we will use other holidays to promote safe driving behavior.

While these messages can be fun, at the end of the day they have a purpose and an action for drivers to take so we can all get home to our friends and family safely.