Thursday, May 28, 2020

Our travel data helping to inform decision making

By Bill Bennion

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced leaders to make unprecedented and extremely difficult decisions, balancing public health and safety with economic repercussions. Data is key to understanding how the virus spreads and how people are modifying their behavior in response. Since early March, we have provided a daily travel report to the Governor, the Legislature, health professionals and others. Interest in that daily report led us to develop the COVID-19 Multimodal Transportation System Performance Dashboard.
Dashboards provide critical information to inform decisions, as seen here at the
emergency operations center at Camp Murray.

The dashboard gives leaders, agencies, data analysts, and others interested in travel access to our data in a user-friendly format. The landing page provides an overview of travel behaviors on highways, tolled facilities, ferries, public transit, and passenger rail from March 1, 2020 through the previous day. Users can also dig further into mode-specific data using the buttons below the executive snapshot.

"WSDOT's real-time traffic and transit volume data have been critical to understanding how the movement of people within Washington state relates to local trends in transmission rates of COVID-19" said Dr. Roy Burstein, a research scientist with the Institute for Disease Modeling. "We've also used WSDOT data as 'ground-truth' to help verify other sources of mobility data derived from cell phone app users."

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Historic 110 year-old East Trent Bridge says its final goodbye

By Ryan Overton

The East Trent Bridge has been through quite a lot over the 110 years since it was constructed on State Route 290/Trent Avenue in Spokane. In addition to accommodating daily traffic, the bridge – once known as the East Olive Avenue Bridge – has stood through two world wars, witnessed the transformative World’s Fair Expo ’74, and endured countless wind, snow and ice events.

The bridge was built in 1910 and was one of the first concrete bridges spanning the Spokane River. It is located near Gonzaga University’s campus and connects Hamilton Street to the west and Martin Luther King Jr. Way to the east.
An eye-in-the-sky look at the East Trent Bridge in Spokane.

Like an old vehicle, the cost of maintaining the old bridge is now more than the value of replacing it, and so now it’s time to bid farewell to the iconic, historical East Trent Bridge. New construction on the bridge actually began in early March but was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With low-risk construction starting back up, work is set to resume on June 1. Coinciding with the start of construction will be the almost four-year closure of SR 290/Trent Avenue over the Spokane River to demolish and rebuild the Trent River Bridge.
A 3D rendering of the design of the new East Trent Bridge.

Bird netting has already been installed to the underside of the bridge to keep birds from nesting before the bridge’s demolition. Now with June 1 approaching and water levels nearing a point where in-water work is possible, we can begin the bridge demolition.

With a closure of this magnitude comes significant detour routes for vehicles, truck traffic and those who bike, walk or roll.
The old East Trent Bridge in Spokane will be replaced starting June 1.

Large Trucks

  • Semi-trucks or those with heavy loads will have the longest detours around the bridge closure. Trucks traveling southbound on Hamilton Street and trying to head east across SR 290/Trent Avenue will have to continue south to eastbound I-90 and travel to the Freya Street exit and then head north to rejoin SR 290/Trent Avenue.

Small Vehicles

  • Smaller passenger vehicles will have the ability to take Spokane Falls Boulevard on the west end and then travel Martin Luther King Jr. Way to rejoin with SR 290/Trent Avenue to continue travels. An alternate route will be using Mission Avenue as a means to cross the Spokane River to get to Napa Avenue before rejoining SR 290/Trent Avenue.

Bike/Walk/Roll

  • Those who bike, walk or roll across the bridge will be able to use the Iron Bridge just to the north that connects along Iron Bridge Way. 

Construction during this project will be slow. Due to short windows where in-water work can be done, along with freezing weather in the winter months, construction is not anticipated to be complete until late 2023.
The East Trent Bridge under construction in February 1910 (photo from Washington State Archives)

While the end is a ways away, the new bridge once again will carry travelers east and west over the river. It will have lots to offer including three instead of four bridge piers which will reduce the drag and create a better flow of the Spokane River. Cyclists, runners, walkers and rollers will enjoy a shared use path, an in-traffic bike lane, and a pedestrian walkway.

And while we design our bridges to last 75 years, we hope this new bridge will be around for much longer, just like the last one.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Why you see so much yellow Scotch Broom on roadsides – and what you can do to help

By Ray Willard

A couple common questions we get each spring are, "What's that yellow plant we see along so many highways, and why don't we do something about it?"

The plant with the bright yellow flowers and distinctive smell is Scotch Broom, or Cytisus scoparious, an invasive species visible along many roadways this time of year. There's a long-standing rumor that our agency planted the invasive Scotch Broom along our roadways many years ago, but that is false. Prior to the 1970s we did plant some "cousins" of the Scotch Broom – called Moonlight Broom and Highway Broom – but those are ornamental varieties and do not produce viable seeds, and thus are not invasive.
Scotch Broom broke out on the cut-slope coming up from the Nisqually Delta on I-5 near Olympia
shortly after freeway construction in the mid-1960s.

How did Scotch Broom get here?
Scotch broom may be pretty, but as an invasive species it acts like an invader, crowding out native plants that are better suited to supporting native wildlife and pollinators. It was first brought here by settlers in the 1800s, who carried with them seeds for plants they enjoyed back in jolly old England or elsewhere, without realizing the threat to native species. It was further spread through clear-cuts by the booming logging industry during the 20th century, and also carried by ground transportation throughout western Washington.

Since we now know the plants are invasive and bad for the environment, why are they still there?
  • First, like most invasive species, Scotch Broom is hardy and hard to remove completely. It thrives in disturbed soil – such as along highway projects – and each mature plant produces hundreds of seeds each summer. Mowing slows but doesn't kill the plants, and their seeds can lay dormant for 60 to 70 years and still germinate in the right conditions.
  • Second, they're also very wide spread in places. The northwest coastal areas of Washington, Oregon and British Columbia are pretty much a perfect breeding ground for Scotch Broom once it's introduced. So there are a lot of plants to contend with. It's not just roads, either. Some of the most widespread and oldest infestations are in the low-lying forest logging areas throughout the region.
  • And third, while we do work to eradicate Scotch Broom in some areas – including around sensitive agriculture fields throughout eastern Washington – limited state funding means we have a containment rather than removal approach in many areas.
Our Scotch Broom management approach
Unfortunately, given funding constraints and the challenges of Scotch Broom itself, there is no way we will ever be able to fully control this plant on all our highways – and restoring an infested area takes decades of work and follow through. So until there is more money and time to devote to this issue, we are focused on protecting currently uninfested areas and preventing further spread. Our strategy is to prioritize control of plants that show up in otherwise uninfested areas as well as some other specially designated restoration areas.

Here are the locations we actively manage Scotch Broom:
  • In counties and areas with specific Scotch Broom concerns and requirements, including all counties in eastern Washington, Skagit County because of agricultural concerns, Pacific County, which is almost entirely Scotch Broom-free, and Clallam and Jefferson counties in gravel pits. In these locations, we are working with the county noxious weed control boards on long-term plans for management and control.
  • In existing naturally pristine sites such as national parks and national recreation areas, and highways on the west slopes of the Cascades approaching the passes.
  • Where individual plants or just small isolated patches exist in otherwise uninfested areas. This prevents the plant from producing seeds and spreading into new areas.
  • In select sites where highway construction work has added new roadside plantings, or where we are using a limited amount of maintenance funding to restore the roadside to a native, pollinator-friendly condition.
  • In strategic locations where the Department of Agriculture has approved releasing several types of seed-eating insects. When established, these bugs can reduce seed production in a patch of Scotch Broom by up to 90%.

In wide spread infestations, the only real management strategy is biological control. We work in cooperation with state and county weed control agents to release insects like the tiny seed eating beetles shown here (Bruchidius villosus)
and have several already established areas in the state.

Our plans and approach are detailed for each section of the state as one part of our Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management Plans. These area-specific plans explain all of the vegetation management related work we do throughout the state, including where and how we control Scotch Broom.

Scotch Broom on the roadsides also got a bit of a "break" in 2015, when we implemented a "reduced mowing policy" to save money and promote better pollinator habitats.  Since then, designated roadside areas have been growing Scotch Broom and other assortments of non-regulated weed species like crazy! Eventually, we'd like to further restore those unmowed areas with more native plants, but that would require additional funding for roadside restoration. That means, for now at least, the Scotch Broom is here to stay.

You can help
Residents in eastern Washington may not even be familiar with Scotch Broom, but it will grow just fine on the "dry side" of the state if you give it a chance. It's just highly regulated and controlled in eastern Washington due to the potential damage it could do to agricultural crops. If you see a Scotch Broom plant east of the Cascades, be sure and report it to the local county noxious weed control board, and pull it out of the ground if you can!

Throughout the month of May, the Washington Invasive Species Council has been conducting the Great Scotch Broom Census of 2020 across the state, and they have received overwhelming response, including many reports of roadside sightings. There's still a couple of days to take part.

You also can learn more about this plant and other fascinating (some scary!) non-native threatening species that threaten our state's environment and economy by visiting the WISC website. They also have online tools – including an app that lists where invasive species are known to be present and ways to report any you spot – as well as a wealth of information on all types of invasive species and their impacts.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

The superheroes of the highway hit the road with new ways to protect the public, themselves during the pandemic

By DiAngelea Millar

It wasn't that long ago that I accompanied Josh Stuckey and later Ken Buretta, two of our Incident Response Team drivers, on ride alongs — you know, back when you could do things like be in the same car with someone else.

But due to the coronavirus pandemic, things look very different as I work in the Traffic Management Center and see our IRT drivers on camera, even from just a few months ago.
Ken Burett, an IRT lead in the Seattle area, shows off one of the
new flashcards our team is using to communicate with the public.

As the state turns the dial and reopens in phases, our IRT drivers across the state are taking extra precautions as more people return to our roads and traffic picks up. It's mind boggling to think how their jobs have changed in the wake of COVID-19, including donning additional protective gear such as cloth masks, face shields, gloves and goggles.

All that gear is heavy, making it more challenging to move, thus taking longer to clear some incidents. The gear traps heat too, so on warm days our IRT drivers are out keeping everyone safe with a heavy gleam of sweat. That's added another degree of difficulty to an already tough job, but the IRT team's mission remains the same: helping stranded travelers safely get back on their way.
Richard Ostrander wears his personal protective equipment while
assisting a driver on I-5 in Tacoma.

Beyond additional gear, IRT drivers have also added several other COVID-19 safety procedures – including special flashcards that allow travelers to stay in their vehicles while still communicating with our drivers.

The laminated flashcards were inspired by our partners at the Oregon Department of Transportation, and allow our drivers to approach from the passenger side of the vehicle to better maintain six feet of distance. The flashcards ask drivers if they are ok, provide the IRT member's cell phone number to call and ask if a translator is needed. This allows people to still get flat tires changed, a little gas to get moving or other assistance without ever stepping out of their vehicle or even rolling down a window. In other cases, IRT drivers also use bullhorns to communicate while keeping a safe distance.
All IRT workers are wearing tags that ask people to keep six feet
 of separation during interactions.

To ensure their own safety and that of anyone they come in contact with, all IRT employees also have bleach wipes to disinfect their vehicles before, during and after a shift. New tags on their uniform also ask that people keep six feet of separation to follow CDC guidelines.

With so many changes, one important fact remains the same — our workers need space.

We highlighted National Work Zone Awareness Week in April, providing information about the dangers our employees often face while working on the roads. Recently, one of our IRT drivers was hit while clearing a collision on I-5 in Seattle.

While the number of vehicles on the road is still less than average, it's still important to be safe if you do need to travel. Please follow speed limits, keep an eye out for first responders and move over to give crews room to work so each person can go home safely at the end of the day.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

A construction reset: Six feet of separation

By Cara Mitchell

In support of Governor Inslee's Stay Home, Stay Healthy order issued March 25, we suspended most of our construction and field maintenance work.

During the suspension, we joined with other agencies and industry partners in a Governor's Roundtable to develop a 30-point COVID-19 safety plan (pdf 138 kb) to resume low-risk work.  Now, with safety plans in place, some work is starting back up and our work zones look a lot different than they did before COVID-19.
Safety banners are on display at every job site to remind workers the importance of standing six feet apart.

All activities require everyone to maintain a distance of six feet from one another. Each worksite has more personal protection equipment like masks, gloves and eye protection. There's additional sanitation on site, and new systems in place for health screening. Each construction project coordinator must produce a safety plan on how they'll comply with all the new requirements and have it approved before work can begin again. A monitor must also be on site each day to ensure the safety standards are being met.
New wash stations like this on the I-5 project in Lakewood provide crews with easy access for more frequent hand washing.

These new safety plans require all of us to re-think how we all do our jobs. Every task, such as cutting lumber for building bridge forms, or installing signs, is broken down step-by-step to keep six feet of separation between workers.

Sometimes, the work can easily be completed. Crews can socially distance for activities like driving piles, bridge formwork, grading, and some electrical work.

Other times, the work is more challenging. For instance, asphalt or concrete paving may get delayed until new guidelines for higher risk construction activities become available.

Our maintenance crews are also donning additional safety gear and adhering to six-foot physical distancing rules as they respond to both planned maintenance and emergency issues such as potholes opening up on bridge decks along Interstate 5. In some rare cases an emergency repair requires workers to be closer than six feet and can't be delayed due to the public safety risk. In those instances, our crews use additional special equipment, such as a Powered Air Purifying Respirator, which provides filtered air and offers additional protection for workers.
Entrance and exit signs plus directional arrows show workers the flow of pedestrian traffic at our I-5 project in Tacoma.

Worksite by worksite

Every job site is going to look different as low-risk work activity resumes. Some job sites are able to find multiple low-risk activities that can be safely completed. Other job sites may only have higher risk construction needs that can't be safely performed right now.

Bottom line – the health and safety of our crews is our top priority. We are all working very hard to roll out this new phase of low-risk construction and maintenance work correctly. If we find something isn't going to work, we pause and rethink the task.
Left: Emergency work on the I-5 bridge over the North Fort Lewis River. Right: Crews doing earth work in eastern Washington wearing new protective safety gear.

Patience goes a long way for all of us

Humans are creatures of habit. It is easy for all of us to slip into old habits. This is why work is starting slowly, applying the new safety measures one activity at a time. Once crews have mastered one work activity, they will add another in.

Transitioning to this new normal of physical distancing takes time and patience. We continue to work with our partners in the labor and construction industries and the Governor's Office to develop guidelines for the next phase of construction. Medium-risk construction would include activities that require workers to be closer than six feet for short durations and thus require additional protections and safeguards.

Drivers play a role in keeping crews safe

While there are fewer cars on the road right now due to Stay Home, Stay Healthy orders, we still see vehicles traveling too fast near work zones. We need drivers to stay alert as low-risk construction and maintenance activity picks up. Remember, most work zone collisions are preventable.

When you are out for essential travel, obey the speed limits, avoid distracted driving and don't follow too closely. We want our coworkers – as well as everyone on the roads – to go home safely to their families at the end of each shift. By working together, we can all make that happen.