Friday, January 15, 2021

Coming around to roundabouts on SR 99 in Fife

By Nick VinZant

What did the engineer say to the driver who was skeptical about roundabouts? "Give it some time and you'll come around."

Okay, maybe we won't make it on the comedy circuit anytime soon but stick around to learn about a new roundabout under construction in Fife. Northbound SR 99 traffic will start using it soon. As part of the SR 167 Completion Project, we are building a new roundabout to reduce congestion and improve freight mobility in the area. In fact, we worked with the City of Fife, the Port of Tacoma, and the freight community to make sure it can accommodate the large trucks that will use it regularly, as well as cars and people who walk and bike through the area.
Round and round we go. The SR 167 Completion Project includes a new SR 99 roundabout
and new, four-lane 70th Avenue East Bridge.

The roundabout
The new SR 99 roundabout will connect SR 99 and the new 70th Avenue East Bridge. Drivers will enter the roundabout from either SR 99 or 70th Avenue East and then travel in one of three directions: south on SR 99, north on SR 99 or south on 70th Avenue East. Like other high-volume roundabouts designed with trucks in mind, this roundabout has two lanes. It also has two bypass lanes: One that will provide direct access to 70th Avenue East from northbound SR 99 and one that will provide direct access from 70th Avenue East to northbound SR 99. In addition to two through-lanes, the new SR 99 roundabout will have sidewalks and crosswalks for people who bike and walk in the area. The crosswalks include pedestrian-activated flashing beacons.
The northbound portion of the roundabout is nearing completion. Northbound traffic (highlighted in green) will start using the roundabout soon. Southbound traffic (highlighted in blue) will shift later in the year when construction is finished.

Opening act: Half a roundabout
We've been busy building the northbound lanes of the roundabout next to SR 99. As early as January 30 (weather permitting), we will shift northbound traffic into the roundabout and crews will start working on the southbound lanes. Think of it as our opening act. Southbound SR 99 drivers will continue to use the current southbound SR 99 alignment until all construction is done, with both directions expected to be fully open by mid-2021.

Why a roundabout?
Yes, they take some getting used to. But ultimately, roundabouts help traffic flow better (no stoplights), are safer (reduced speeds), and are more cost efficient than intersections using traffic signals. How do we know?
  • Improved traffic flow: A recent study out of Kansas State University shows that there's a 20 percent reduction in delays when roundabouts are used instead of stoplights. A second study by the Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) concluded that roundabouts reduced vehicle stops by 56 percent. These types of reductions are especially important at intersections like SR 99/70th Avenue East, where there's a large amount of freight traffic. We worked closely with the Port of Tacoma and the freight community to ensure the roundabout will work for large trucks. For example, this roundabout is designed with wide lanes and what's called a truck apron (a sloped, raised section of pavement around the center island) that trucks can easily drive over and complete their turns.
  • Safer: Studies also show roundabouts reduce injury collisions. According to the IIHS, roundabouts reduce fatal crashes by 90 percent, injury crashes by 75 percent and overall crashes by 37 percent. Because of their design, roundabouts greatly reduce the dangerous T-bone collisions that can occur at signalized intersections.
  • More cost-efficient: Traffic lights are expensive. On average, they cost between $5,000 and $10,000 a year to maintain. The new roundabout provides a cost-effective, safe traffic solution.
The bigger picture
We designed the new roundabout to work with the rest of the 70th Avenue East Bridge Replacement Project – a new bridge over I-5 at 70th Avenue East. The bridge replaces an existing two-lane bridge with a four-lane bridge and adds a 12-foot-wide shared used path. The bridge and roundabout will reduce the delays drivers currently experience on the existing bridge and SR 99/70th Avenue East intersection, as well as improve safety for everyone who drives, walks, bikes or rolls through the area.

Wait, wait. We've got one more…
What do you call happy drivers in a roundabout? A Merry-Go-Round! If that doesn't get you in the mood to drive in the new roundabout, we have some excellent resources you can circle back to. Below you will find everything from safety tips to an instructional video.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Wildlife fencing proving to be a big success on US 97

By Mike Allende

While the I-90 wildlife overcrossing receives much of the attention when it comes to our wildlife-connectivity and safety efforts, it's not the only work we're doing to make things safer for everyone on and near our highways.
A bobcat stops for a close up while traveling under US 97 where new fencing has
helped give wildlife a safer way to cross the highway.

A big success in 2020 involved the 12-mile stretch of US 97 between Riverside and Tonasket, arguably the worst deer-vehicle collision area in the state. Running between the North Cascades and Okanogan Highlands ranges, we see all the usual wildlife you might expect and though we haven't seen them, we've heard there are rare appearances of Canada lynx, wolverine and endangered sharp-tailed and greater sage grouse as well. Oh, not to mention our state's largest herd of mule deer calling that area home. Many apple orchards in the area attract the deer and keep them close to the highway, which is never a good thing as that puts both passing motorists and the deer at risk

We knew something had to be done.

Led by Conservation Northwest, we were part of a team that also included Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the Mule Deer Foundation to install about 1-mile of wildlife barrier fencing south of an existing bridge that had all the characteristics necessary to retrofit to allow the diverse wildlife in the area to safely pass underneath. The fencing installation began in October 2019 and was completed in August 2020, and our cameras monitoring wildlife movement has shown it to be a big success!
Looks like other animals are giving this cougar a clear path to cross under US 97, as area which sees a lot of wildlife activity.

In just this first year, we saw almost 2,200 mule deer crossings – about an average of six crossings a day! That's the most deer crossings we've ever documented in a single year. But it's not just deer. Everything from cougar and bobcat to raccoons to turkey and pheasant are taking advantage of the safer environment.

During this same period, we've seen a 63 percent drop in deer-vehicle collisions reported within the area the fencing lies. Because the fence was completed only halfway through the first year of monitoring, we expect to see numbers get even better. Judging by other locations, we can expect to see an 80-to-90 percent drop in deer-vehicle collisions by the next monitoring period.
Left: The US 97 corridor is home to the state's largest herd of mule deer and finding safe ways for them to cross the highway is good for both the animals and drivers. Right: It's not just large animals finding their way across US 97,
as this clan of raccoons shows.

Of course, we recognize this is just a mile of a 12-mile stretch that needs more mitigation. This likely requires building several new wildlife underpasses and connecting them with fencing, which all requires funding. While simply putting up fencing to keep wildlife from the highway may reduce collisions in the short term, it goes against our long-term goal of increasing wildlife habitat connectivity and avoiding the creation of new barriers to wildlife movement. We want to provide a safe travel corridor for both animals and drivers, and create an environment for our animal friends to be able to thrive.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Southbound SR 99 Duwamish River Bridge work in Seattle to start in February

By Tom Pearce

We have a contractor for work on Seattle's southbound State Route 99 Duwamish River Bridge, aka the First Avenue South bridge, but we don't have a date when work will begin. The current estimate is early  February; once we have a specific date we'll share it on our website and Twitter.

Massana Construction Inc. of Gig Harbor had the lowest bid among the five contractors who submitted proposals. Their bid of roughly $380,000 was actually about 18 percent below our engineer's estimate. The savings will be available for us to use on other projects.

With the West Seattle Bridge closed, we understand how important the SR 99 Duwamish River Bridge is to people who travel to or from West Seattle. We are working closely with the Seattle Department of Transportation as we plan for and schedule repairs.

Repairs coming
When this work begins it will only affect southbound SR 99; the northbound lanes will remain open at all times. While we're working, several alternative routes are available.
The bearing pads that the bridge girder rests on are worn out and need to be replaced
on Seattle's SR 99 Duwamish River bridge.

Our contract allows for up to 15 nights of work. At the start of the project we will need to close all lanes of southbound SR 99 between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. for one night so our contractor can set up their equipment. Travelers can expect about three weeks with the southbound bridge reduced to two lanes. We'll also need a full overnight southbound closure at the end of the project to remove equipment.
When we reduce the southbound SR 99 Duwamish River Bridge to two lanes, people have
several options to get around the closure.

During the work, Massana's crews will replace bearing pads, which allow the structure to flex and move with weather and traffic conditions. They'll also do some steel repair and concrete bridge deck repairs. To accommodate this, crews will shift traffic to one side of the bridge first, then move traffic to the other side to finish.

Why we're working now
The bearing pads – masonry pads that the girder rests on – were part of the initial construction when the southbound SR 99 Duwamish River Bridge opened in 1996. These pads are worn out and need to be replaced. The pads allow us to precisely set the elevation of the bridge's superstructure.

When a truck is on top of the bearing, it presses the deck down. When the truck moves, you can see the deck rise slightly.

During a regular inspection in October 2020, our bridge maintenance crews noted the bridge was moving on the bearing pads more than it should, so we did temporary repairs to keep the bridge stable while we planned the permanent fix.

There's never a good time to reduce capacity on a major highway. However, scheduling this work allows people to plan ahead and consider alternate routes. It also helps us avoid the need for emergency repairs that require unscheduled closures. Thanks for your patience as we complete this vital work!

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Enjoy the snow and the outdoors - but please don’t park or walk along roadways

By Barbara LaBoe

Winter's here and outdoor activity is a good option during a pandemic – so we know why so many people are flocking to the mountains right now. But we're also seeing some serious safety and access issues with travelers parking and walking along roadways near crowded areas.

Winter activities aren't new, but we're seeing much higher numbers as people seek out new outdoor activities or just a chance to get out of their house. Those higher numbers mean more crowding at popular recreation areas and this poses serious safety concerns. It also is preventing our crews from clearing some roadways and passes. With several more months of winter ahead of us, we're asking all travelers to help us keep everyone along our roadways, exit ramps and interchanges safe.
An increase in people looking for winter recreation has led to a dangerous increase in vehicles parking alongside
a highway and sledding on interchanges right next to the road.

Highway shoulders are not parking lots – or walkways
On multiple mountain pass roadways, ramps and interchanges across the state, we're seeing vehicles parking along shoulders when parking lots or other areas fill up. This also means people walking along the highway, often carrying bulky gear that obstructs their view of vehicles around them, or wearing snow gear that may affect their mobility.  This is a tragedy waiting to happen – just as it was this summer when we saw similar practices. Now, however, we have lower visibility and snowy/icy roads in play as well – and we've already seen close calls in areas.
Cars parking on the side of highways makes it hard for snow plows to maneuver and get through to treat and clear roads.

In the past few weeks, we also saw people using highway interchanges as sledding hills very close to active traffic and areas where crews are clearing snow. Again, this poses serious dangers, including the chance a sledder will shoot out into open traffic. Interchanges and other highway right of ways are not designed for pedestrian use or recreation and they're simply not safe for those activities – even if covered in snow.

Vehicles parking along the shoulder also slow down traffic and increase the risk of crashes as passing vehicles have to maneuver through the now-narrowed area. That's the last thing we need during busy travel times or winter weather.

Help keep our snowplows moving
In addition to the safety factor, vehicles parking along shoulders at interchanges and other areas are also causing problems for our plows and the crews working hard to keep the roadways open.

On Snoqualmie Pass, plows couldn't make it into storage areas for additional salt and supplies recently due to vehicles parked on shoulders and blocking access. In some cases, there also wasn't enough room to turn around a plow to do their return runs, or barely enough space for large plows to move through roadways that people decided to turn into parking lots. Our partners at the Washington State Patrol ticketed some of those vehicles, but they don't have the staffing for such widescale parking enforcement.
A snow blower works to clear US 2 Stevens Pass while in the distance people walk on the highway,
creating potentially dangerous situations for them and vehicles.

During heavy storms these delays could lead to more road closure as crews aren't able to keep roadways treated or cleared. It can also affect emergency crews being able to reach crash sites. We hope everyone keeps that in mind when looking for safe, legal parking options.

So, what can you do to help lower these risks?
  • Plan your trips ahead of time – and have a Plan B if your first choice is full. Simply driving until you see snow isn't always safe, especially if there is no designated parking area. Some areas also may not be developed due to avalanche or other risks that aren't immediately apparent.
  • Find safe places to recreate. State parks as well as local parks can be a good option to explore the outdoors – check state park sites and safety tips online. If visiting ski areas, check ahead to see if they have limits or new safety procedures due to the pandemic.
  • Check conditions and know your limits. Heavy snow can increase avalanche dangers. Check the Northwest Avalanche Center for forecasts and alerts and be sure to carry safety supplies with you. If you're not used to outdoor snow activities, research risks and needed skills, or consider a less risky alternative.
  • Do not park or walk along highway shoulders. Hate to sound like a broken record here, but this is not safe for you or passing motorists.
  • Pack extra supplies. Whether it's due to a road closure, vehicle trouble or other issue, it's always a good idea to have extra food, warm clothing and other supplies during winter travel. Not sure what you need? Check out our online winter supplies list for suggestions.
Illegal parking alongside highways puts everyone in potentially dangerous situations.

We know many Washingtonians enjoy outdoor winter activities and we want everyone – members of the public as well as our crews – to be safe when they do so. Please keep these tips in mind to help ensure all of your outdoor adventures are safe and fun.