Wednesday, December 4, 2019

It’s a wrap on Snoqualmie Pass, almost

By Meagan Lott

As the cooler weather sets in, construction projects across I-90 between North Bend and Vantage are wrapping up for the season -- and one in particular is wrapping up for good.

We are checking the new 7-mile stretch of highway between Hyak and Stampede Pass off of our list, which means we are now at the halfway point of the 15-mile project that improves I-90 all the way to Easton. Over the past nine construction seasons, contractor crews have removed more than 2 million cubic yards of dirt and rock and poured 153,000 cubic yards of concrete as part of this massive undertaking.
When we started there were two lanes in each direction but now a third lane has been added both east and west. In addition, due to a realignment, all six of the lanes here were built from scratch and are brand new roadways and surfaces for travelers. This work also built 17 new bridges, including two new avalanche bridges and a wildlife overcrossing that is already being put to good use by local wildlife.

All of this hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Recently, this project received the regional Association of American State Highway and Transportation Officials award for best use of technology and innovation. Also Brian White, assistant regional administrator, recently received the Jim Ellis Spirit Award from the Mountains to Sound Greenway, for his role in project management and his ability to foster collaborative partnerships, to create a solution for both wildlife and people.
Our work on the I-90 in recent years included two new avalanche bridges which allow snow and debris from avalanches to flow under the bridges and reduce the amount of avalanche-related closures in the winter.

The other projects wrapping up for the season include the improvements we have been working on for the past couple of summers between North Bend and the summit of Snoqualmie Pass. To date, contractor crews have removed 2,278 concrete panels that were in rough shape and poured more than 9,100 cubic yards of new concrete to replace them. Crews also repaired four bridge decks. This project starts back up next spring and is scheduled to be complete in fall 2020.

Near Cle Elum, crews placed more than 5,700 tons of new asphalt and started work to repaint the two bridges over the Cle Elum River. Crews will be back next summer to finish the new paint job as well as repair both bridge decks. Speaking of bridges, crews are also repairing the decks on the bridges over the Yakima River in Cle Elum and Ellensburg. So far they’ve placed more than 2,700 tons of asphalt and will finish things up next summer.

Finally, paving between Ellensburg and Vantage is now complete. Crews placed more than 41,600 tons of new asphalt during this summer of work, giving travelers a new smooth surface to drive on.

What’s next in this area? Work on the second half of the 15-mile I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East project was scheduled to kick off in summer 2020, but that has been put on hold for a bit as part of Gov. Jay Inslee’s direction after the passage of Initiative 976. Postponing projects like this one, which hadn’t yet gone to bid, gives the governor and Legislature time and flexibility to determine how to implement the initiative as they work toward an amended budget during the 2020 session.

We want to thank all of you who traveled across I-90 this summer and fall and for your patience and understanding. We know construction zones can be frustrating during travel, but the short-term pain pays off in the long run when travelers have improved and expanded roadways for their trips for many years to come.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

New westbound I-90 auxiliary ramp in Snoqualmie scheduled to open on Thursday, Dec. 5

Final paving, striping to occur in spring 2020

By Nicole Daniels

After about a month of work, the new temporary State Route 18/Snoqualmie Parkway auxiliary on-ramp to westbound Interstate 90 is scheduled to open to traffic Thursday afternoon, Dec. 5, as long as the weather stays dry. These modifications are expected to provide some short-term congestion relief and help improve traffic flow on Snoqualmie Parkway and nearby local intersections before the new I-90/SR 18 interchange project is complete in 2023.

Completed improvements
In partnership with the city of Snoqualmie, our contractor crews from Road Construction Northwest, Inc. used the old westbound I-90 weigh station property to create a second on-ramp lane for highway users. The traffic signal on SR 18 was also retimed, and ramp meters were added to evenly distribute vehicles merging onto westbound I-90.
Graphic outlining the changes to the Snoqualmie Parkway/SR 18 on-ramp to westbound I-90

Southbound Snoqualmie Parkway travelers going to westbound I-90 will notice:
  • A right turn only lane on southbound Snoqualmie Parkway.
  • No traffic signal as you enter the ramp.
  • A dedicated westbound I-90 on-ramp lane.
  • A meter at the end of the on-ramp.
Eastbound SR 18 travelers going to westbound I-90 will notice:
  • A retimed traffic signal on SR 18 - providing a longer green light for those turning on to westbound I-90.
  • A dedicated westbound I-90 on-ramp lane.
  • A meter at the end of the on-ramp.
Why meter the on-ramp?
The ramp meters will operate during peak commute times - activating automatically based on westbound I-90 traffic flow. Metering the two-lane on-ramp will reduce congestion on westbound I-90 by providing consistent gaps between vehicles, rather than allowing multiple vehicles to flood the highway at once.

Final work resumes in spring 2020
The final paving and striping will occur in spring 2020 - when warmer, drier weather returns. Crews will complete this weather-dependent work during daytime lane closures. Travelers should check the King County construction page or sign up for weekly email updates for current closure information.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Some late-night kindness on I-5 in Mt. Vernon

By Andrea E. Petrich

It was 1 a.m. on a chilly night earlier this November when Casey O'Keefe's tire blew on northbound I-5 south of Mount Vernon. That's a pretty scary experience, especially in the middle of the night.

Casey safely made it to the side of the highway and called roadside assistance. With help on its way, and his mobile phone nearly dead, Casey knew if assistance was delayed, couldn't find him or he needed to call for more help, he'd be in real trouble.

Thankfully, Juan Medina was nearby.
Casey O'Keefe returns an inverter loaned to him during a roadside emergency.

Juan, an employee of the Belarde Company working on our I-5 Stillaguamish River Bridge to Hill Ditch Bridge paving project, noticed Casey's vehicle. He pulled over to be sure things were okay.

Casey told Juan about his cell phone and without a second thought, Juan handed over his power inverter to give Casey's phone a charge. Needing to get back to work, Juan let Casey know he'd circle back around to get the charger back. When they failed to reconnect that night, Casey knew he had to return the favor.

The next day, he called our Burlington office to get some information, then grabbed the inverter and drove down from Bellingham. He didn't know the name of the person who loaned him the device, or the company he worked for, only that there was a "B" on the work truck. A little digging on our part identified the project and the company so we reached out to them to find the owner.

That led us – and the inverter – to Juan, who was really grateful to Casey for his diligence in returning the device. He assumed he'd seen the last of it.

Casey was just as thankful for the help Juan gave him.

"It's nice to come across great humans when you need them," he said.

We agree.

This month – and especially this week – is a time to remember all the things we're thankful for. That's why this story resonated so much with us. We employ fantastic staff and contractors who not only do a great job taking care of our highways but also work to be sure the people who use our roads are taken care of, too.

So thanks to Juan and Casey for sharing their story of mutual kindness. It was the perfect time to remind us what this time of year is all about.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

A star is born on our mountain passes

By Mike Allende

When Mazama signed on to be a part of our avalanche control team, she knew she'd work hard, have great teammates and see some amazing sights.

But the fame, well, that came as a surprise.
Mazama opened up about her life and work in a rare interview on the North Cascades Highway.

Bursting onto the scene last winter season, Mazama the Avalanche Rescue Goat has become the furry face of our northern snow and ice program. She may pop up on SR 20 North Cascades Highway helping assess conditions at Washington Pass, or could appear on US 2 Stevens Pass keeping an eye on avalanche danger for crews clearing the highway. And wherever she shows up, fans follow.
Mazama, looking good in her safety gear, says
one of her favorite parts of her job are
the amazing views like this on SR 20's
Washington Pass overlook.

Can a goat really have fans? Oh yes, Mazama's debut last year was nothing short of a fan frenzy. "Mazama is the hero we all need," one person said on social media, where she regularly racks up among our most likes, comments and questions of any of our content.

"All the attention I've gotten, it's humbling," Mazama said during a recent exclusive interview. "It's nice that I can bring attention to the great work our avalanche teams do, because they're the true stars. The fans, I love them, but it's not something I ever expected."

It's been a long road to our agency for Mazama. Born in the deserts of Patagonia, her wanderlust led her to Mount Hood in Oregon, where a chance meeting with a ski area worker brought her to WSDOT. That worker was the son of Mike Stanford, our North Central Region Avalanche Forecast and Control Supervisor. Knowing we're always on the lookout for great employees, Stanford recruited Mazama on the spot and she made her way to our neck of the woods.

"And the rest is history," she said. "It was really meant to be."

Stanford, who leads avalanche control work on some of our busiest mountain passes, including US 2 and SR 20, said Mazama hit the ground – with all four legs – running.

"She's really a perfect employee," he said. "She follows directions, she never complains and she does what we need her to do. Plus, she's got a pretty good sense of humor."

But just what does an Avalanche Rescue Goat do? While she jokes that she does "whatever I want," there's more to it. Her primary job is to assist our crews in relaying safety information. She helps keep the public up to date as the team watches forecasts, checks snow depth, helps set equipment up and clears snow and debris off the road. (Mazama always tags along with her team members when making her reports, so there are no goat-specific trips involved in her work.)
The snow was falling hard on the SR 20 North Cascades Highway when
Mazama was up checking conditions in late November.

How about setting off explosives to trigger controlled avalanches to clear out avalanche chutes?

"It's a little loud for me, and I've got pretty amazing hearing," she said. "So I keep my distance in those situations."

Fortunately, she's never had to actually make a rescue. We have safety precautions and policies in place to try to keep everyone – the public and our crews – safe in potential avalanche situations. But she does train for it, and carries a whistle and avalanche beacon just in case. Being prepared is key for any team member, human or goat, and that goes for travelers as well.

"You really have to take safety seriously," Mazama said. "Yes, I know I look good in my gear – really good – but it's first and foremost about safety. We train hard so that we're ready, but the goal is never to have to use our training."
Wearing her trusty whistle and avalanche beacon are important parts of Mazama's
safety preparation as she assists crews in measuring snow depth.

Off of work, Mazama is like any other goat. She likes to eat, spend time with Stanford and her adopted family and, not surprising given her locale, enjoys winter sports.

"I've tried skiing but I'm more into snowshoeing," she said. "I find they fit better on my hooves. I just throw some dark chocolate in my pouch and head out to enjoy the winter fun."

She lives with Stanford and his wife, along with her twin sister Maya, who is not involved in our avalanche program.

"Oh, she's the wild one," Mazama said. "Like any family, we are total opposites. I love Maya, but she's a little unpredictable and really not a good fit for our team. But she's hilarious, I'll give her that."

After taking some of the warmer months off after a busy first season with our team, Mazama is back hard at work. Soon she'll be helping close the SR 20 North Cascades Highway for the winter, while turning her attention to keeping highways like Stevens Pass safe and open over the long winter. It's no easy task but she wouldn't have it any other way.
A key part of Mazama's work is helping with the winter closure of the SR 20 North Cascades Highway
and then, come spring, helping get the road reopened.

"I just love being a part of this, it's really fun," Mazama said. "It's hard work, but very rewarding keeping people informed and letting them know what all goes into keeping roads open and travelers safe."

In fact, you could say the job is tailor-made for Mazama.

"I get to do what most goats couldn't even dream of," she said, gazing up at the mountains that have become her second home. "I get to be a part of a great team, see beautiful scenery and help share some great messages. And play in the snow. I'm one happy goat."

Thursday, November 21, 2019

HOV connections open at I-5 and SR 16 in Tacoma

By Cara Mitchell

UPDATE: Saturday, Nov. 23

All of the HOV connected lanes at Interstate 5 and State Route 16 in Tacoma are now open.
It's time. We're thrilled to announce that design-builder Skanska has started opening the new high-occupancy-vehicle lanes at the Interstate 5 and State Route 16 interchange in Tacoma.

This morning, Thursday, Nov. 21, the contractor opened the southbound I-5 HOV lane to westbound SR 16 HOV. Over the next few days, the contractor will finish striping and installing barrier on the remaining HOV connections. Based on their schedule and weather permitting, we anticipate opening the remaining HOV connections on Saturday, Nov. 23:
  • Eastbound SR 16 HOV to northbound and southbound I-5 HOV
  • Northbound I-5 HOV to westbound SR 16 HOV
If weather delays the opening of the remaining HOV connections on Nov. 23, the next target date is Dec. 6.
This photo shows where the lane of eastbound SR 16 HOV splits to either northbound I-5 HOV
(to the left) or to southbound I-5 (to the right).

Once these HOV ramp connections are open, vanpools, busses and carpool users can merge into the southbound or northbound I-5 HOV lane on the left side of the interstate, and use the dedicated HOV ramps to westbound SR 16.

Keep in mind, there is no access to South Sprague Avenue or Union Avenue from the SR 16 HOV lanes. Carpoolers traveling on I-5 to SR 16 to South Sprague or Union Avenue will need to use the same exit to SR 16 that they always have. If you're in a carpool traveling on I-5 headed to Fircrest, Point Defiance or Gig Harbor, you can take the westbound SR 16 HOV exits.

As always this time of year, weather may impact the timeline. We will provide updates on TacomaTraffic.com if the schedules change drastically. This will also be where to found all closure and detour info for Pierce County projects.

In case you missed it, make sure to see our video that shows drivers how the HOV connections work, and what to remember when you're using them.
As a reminder, when the HOV connections open at the I-5 and SR 16 interchange, travelers who use the northbound I-5 HOV lane will temporarily merge into mainline traffic near the Yakima Avenue overpass. This temporary configuration will remain in place until the southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge project is complete, in late 2021. At that time, the entire HOV system will be open, with HOV lanes extending from Gig Harbor on SR 16, onto I-5 through Tacoma and Fife and continuing through King County.

If it fits your commute, now might be a good time to consider forming a new vanpool or carpool. RideshareOnline.com has all the help you need to take advantage of the new HOV connections in Tacoma.

With 11 years and three construction projects in the rear-view mirror, we along with you are grateful that on-going construction at this massive interchange, our Nalley Valley viaduct, is nearing completion. To the 200,000 travelers that use this interchange every day, your patience through all of this has been greatly appreciated.

As we near the end of this construction, we continue to ask travelers to watch speeds in work zones and give construction crews the room they need to finish this important project.