Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Elementary, my dear WSDOT

Some cool tools – aka underground detectives – do the dirty work under SR 203 when we aren't able to

By Frances Fedoriska

A level of "subterranean sleuthing" will help us determine why a portion of State Route 203 suddenly shifted earlier this year. Without Sherlock Holmes around, we can't crack this case without the help of some devices designed for undercover dirty jobs like the one unfolding under the highway between Carnation and Duvall.

Following a landslide in early 2020, we planted multiple devices under mounds of dirt, rocks and debris under the highway. Since then, they've been collecting information needed to design a fix for the slide – in places and times when we can't access the area.
Exhibit C – for "cracks." This gash in the asphalt on SR 203 shows how much the ground underneath
the roadway moved during a slide earlier this year.

Exhibit A: The timeline
Here's a quick recap of how we got here:
  • Early 2020 – A slide causes part of the southbound lane between Carnation and Duvall to give way. Since then the lane has been closed with traffic alternating through northbound SR 203.
  • March 23, 2020 – The global pandemic prompts the Governor to issue a "Stay Home" order to slow the spread of COVID-19, halting most construction in our state to keep workers safe and at home. 
  • June 19, 2020 – King County enters Phase 2 of the "Safe Start" reopening plan. This gives our personnel permission and new guidelines to safely get back to work in the field, investigating the cause of the slide.  
  • July 15, 2020 – SR 203 closes for a day allowing crews to access the area and collect subsurface information from devices installed into the sinking side of the roadway. We also searched for a historic waterline in the northbound shoulder.
Star witnesses: inclinometers and piezometers
Inclinometers measure embankment movement. The metal casing – basically a large, specialized pipe – is placed inside a hole drilled into the roadway and then bends when the ground or road around it moves. A probe is lowered into the casing to measure any deformations to determine how much movement happened since the previous reading.
Two key devices, both resembling metal coffee tins, tell us what is happening under the highway by
measuring movement without tearing up the road.

Piezometers monitor groundwater levels underneath the road. This is crucial to predicting future movement needed to prevent future slides. An open standpipe piezometer -- a long, narrow pipe placed inside a bore hole -- collects groundwater. Periodic manual readings of how deep the water level is shows whether there's a change – or movement – in the ground below that allows water to seep up or out of the ground.
In late July we took manual readings from the piezometer to monitor groundwater levels under the roadway.

Next steps
It will take a few weeks to assemble all the clues and translate the data we've collected into a confirmed source of the slide. Once we know the cause, engineers will design a solution that fixes the damage done and prevents future occurrences so we can safely reopen all lanes of SR 203.
Masked up and physically distanced, a crew member enters measurements into the system. The data logged in the
field will be analyzed by our geotechnical team in Olympia.

Thank you for your patience
We understand travelers are frustrated with the delays and speed at which this project is unfolding. We are too. At this time, there is no date for when construction may begin, but our goal remains getting started before the next rainy season.

To stay up to date on the developments, sign up for WSDOT's King County updates. A project webpage will be added to the WSDOT website once this mystery is solved.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Building a bridge over I-5 in one weekend, and how you can help

By Laura Newborn

The most dramatic sign of progress on our SR 167 Completion Project is a new bridge in Fife that's about to take shape in just one weekend.

On August 28 and 29, our contractor, Guy F. Atkinson Construction, will close both directions of I-5 between Federal Way and Fife to move 10 gigantic girders into place for the new 70th Avenue East Bridge. It's a heavy lift. Each girder is 220 feet long - almost the size of a 747-8's wingspan. Each one is 9 feet tall, 4 feet wide and 231,000 pounds. Installing these girders takes plenty of coordination, choreography and skill.
This bridge girder shows just how big these record-breaking girders are. The one belongs to the future southbound I-5 Puyallup River Bridge and is 223-feet-long. The Fife girders are 220-feet long. Combined, these two projects set the record for the largest pre-stressed concrete girders made in the US. They are made in Tacoma by Concrete Technology Corp.

Closing I-5 between Federal Way and Fife
Safely lifting loads this large across the highway requires a full closure of I-5 for two consecutive overnight periods. Each night, five girders will make the 5-mile, 45-minute journey from Tacoma's Concrete Technology Corp. to the bridge site in Fife. Cranes stationed on the southbound and northbound roadways will then guide each girder to its predetermined spot. Five girders one night and five the second night.

We chose weekend overnights for the work as they are the least-traveled times on I-5, but we understand there's never a good time to close a major interstate. Backups could be significant in both directions. And that's where we need your help. If possible, please avoid the area and skip discretionary trips during these hours:

Friday, August 28 and Saturday August 29
  • I-5 lane closures begin at 8 p.m. on Friday
  • All lanes of I-5 will close at 11p.m. between 54th Avenue East in Fife and SR 18 in Federal Way
  • Lanes start to reopen by 8 a.m. Saturday
  • All lanes will reopen by noon Saturday
Saturday August 29 and Sunday August 30
  • I-5 lane closures begin at 8 p.m. Saturday
  • All lanes of I-5 will close at 11 p.m. between 54th Avenue East in Fife and SR 18 in Federal Way
  • Lanes start to reopen by 8 a.m. Sunday
  • All lanes will reopen by noon Sunday
We need help from drivers
Drivers who must travel between Seattle and Olympia during the closure hours are advised to use SR 18, SR 167, and SR 512, which can accommodate the most traffic. The SR 99 detour provides access back to I-5. Southbound I-5 travelers headed to downtown Tacoma, Gig Harbor or points beyond will want to consider the SR 99 detour.

Benefits of building a bridge this way
One of the reasons we chose to build a bridge with these exceptionally long girders was to avoid long-term traffic impacts. Shorter girders would have required us to widen I-5 and build columns in the median – work that would have brought prolonged lane closures. The longer girders need one weekend to install. You can watch bridge construction and the girder lift on our real-time construction cameras.

In the end, this project will be worth it. When it opens in mid-2021, the new 70th Avenue East Bridge will greatly improve travel in the area by reducing congestion, improving freight mobility, and providing new options for people who walk and bike.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Reallocating space to support economic recovery and healthy lifestyles

By Beth Bousley

In response to the pandemic, communities are looking for creative ways to support their businesses while taking care of their residents. Some have approached us to reallocate space on public roadways to allow for more freedom for retailers and restaurants to operate outdoors and for people to stroll, roll, cycle, dine and shop while more easily staying six feet apart.

So we've come up with a plan. The Safe, Healthy and Active Streets Program.

Safe, Healthy, and Active Streets Program
As we began receiving requests from different communities interested in temporary lane reallocation, we developed a set of parameters for considering and responding to these requests.

Under Gov. Inslee's Safe Start Plan, we partnered with the Washington state departments of Health and Commerce to provide communities more access to public roadways to support business recovery and active, healthy lifestyles. This is one more tool for communities to consider as they think about the health of their residents and economic recovery for local businesses.

The Safe, Healthy and Active Streets Program (pdf 80 kb) allows temporary lane reallocations on some state roadways. The goal is to increase space for people walking or biking, or create outdoor seating for restaurants and sales areas for retailers, while maintaining physical distance to help reduce exposure to the virus. Across the state, 458 miles of state routes meet the criteria because they are located in a town or area where people live and have speed limits of 35 mph or less.
Parklet in White Salmon provides outdoor seating for restaurant.

The temporary lane reallocation is not one-size-fits-all. Some communities, like Bingen and White Salmon, are replacing a parking space or two with outdoor restaurant or brewpub seating. In Pullman the pandemic reignited the community's interest in the Central Business District Master plan, which is designed to enhance the energy and public spaces in the downtown corridor. By implementing a trial run with temporary lane reallocation along Main Street (which is also a segment of SR 270), Pullman is testing and getting community feedback on elements of the plan at a cost of less than $5,000.

With the approval of the Pullman City Council, we joined the city in looking at the street's traffic volumes and determined Main Street could function adequately with two lanes. They worked together to develop the plans for revisions. Some intersections have been reconfigured to create shorter crosswalks, reducing the distance for people crossing the street and at the same time making it easier for stores and restaurants to spill out onto the sidewalk to help customers remain physically distant from each other. A lane of traffic was converted to a protected bike lane and back-in angled parking, which is serving to calm traffic to help people comply with the posted speed limit. With the protected bike lane, people on bikes have separation and protection that makes it more comfortable to ride than being right next to moving motor vehicles. Back-in parking adds more capacity than other options like parallel parking. It is also safer, because passengers don't need to exit the car into traffic and drivers have better visibility when re-entering traffic.

This trial period will last through the summer and early fall to give the community a sense of how the changes worked with and without Washington State University students present. So far, city officials say that people like the bike lane and new uses of the sidewalk. Crossing the street feels safer. The back-in angled parking presents some challenges. One truck driver shared that he finds the stalls too small, emphasizing that Pullman is an agricultural community with lots of trucks. He wants to see the program through to the end, but wants to make sure Pullman implements what feels right for the community.

WSDOT and the city looked at the street's traffic volumes, and determined
Main Street could function adequately with two lanes.

The extra space was used to change the parallel parking on the south side of Main Street to back-in angled parking.

There is also a new bike lane protected by temporary barriers.

In Pullman, the barriers will be gone by October and auto traffic will flow again.

Opening up portions of roadways helps retailers, restaurants and other businesses adapt to new operating requirements by giving customers greater access at their locations. This includes outdoor seating at restaurants on sidewalks or part of a roadway as well as curbside pickup locations for retailers.  These steps strengthen communities and let people experience their main street and downtown commercial neighborhoods in new ways.

Active transportation, like walking and biking, supports physical, mental and emotional health. Providing this extra public space encourages people and families to get outdoors and participate in more physical activities, which is especially important today to help cope with the stress of COVID-19. It also provides more room for such activities, especially in towns with narrow sidewalks that aren't conducive to physical distancing or lack ADA accessibility. Our COVD-19 transportation dashboard is showing increases in walking and bicycling well above the same time last year, while driving is down.

Helping communities
SR 14 parklet in Bingen provides outdoor seating for restaurants

This is a community-led program and happens only if a community requests it in a specific location for a limited duration (up to 90 days although it could end sooner or be extended). Currently, Bingen, Pullman, and White Salmon are in the program. A number of communities across the state including Seattle, Everett, Bellevue and Edmonds have opened parking areas or lanes in their city's commercial district for increased open space and business access or have temporarily changed neighborhood streets to provide more walk/bike space while continuing to provide access for drivers who live there or who are providing services or deliveries. Cities with state routes in their business districts should first get buy-in from their community stakeholders, then contact us. Counties can also propose locations in population centers that aren't incorporated as cities or towns.

Every project must meet state safety standards and be approved before implemented, and we will work with them to ensure they meet the following criteria:
  • Eligible state highway locations will be on roadways with 35 mph speed limits or lower and within population centers with demonstrated lack of space for physical distancing for walking, bicycling or other forms of active transportation.
  • Local jurisdictions will ensure that they've communicated with the people and businesses affected by the changes and that they report on how the roadway changes work.
  • The duration of temporary lane reallocations will be for up to 90 days, but could vary depending on the agreement with each city.
  • A traffic management plan that will enable people using every mode of transportation to get to their destinations is in place.
In these extraordinary times our goal is to support the wellbeing of people and businesses in interested communities, and ultimately throughout our state.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

2020 isn’t a normal year – including for our road maintenance work

By Barbara LaBoe

2020 has come with a list of challenges and “new normals” for everyone, and that includes the people working to keep our state roads maintained in the midst of a pandemic.

The pandemic and subsequent revenue reductions have left our crews months behind their normal workload and now trying to catch up while also encountering new obstacles. And that's on top of the backlog we were already facing before the pandemic struck.
Our crews are working night and day to complete needed maintenance work, but pandemic delays
and new restrictions means they can't get to everything they normally would this spring and summer.

Simply put, we're not able to do all that we have in past springs and summers. And we know that means the traveling public will notice the difference.

This is particularly tough for our crews, who take immense pride in the roadways they maintain within their communities and the work they do day in and day out. The delays are due to limits on hours and personnel – not the effort of our crews.

How did we get here?
We were already struggling to maintain infrastructure after decades of underfunding for work needed to maintain and preserve our infrastructure. What made it tougher was the pandemic.

The safety of our crews is our priority, so to keep them safe and slow the spread of the virus, in March we sent most of our maintenance crews home. (We also shut down construction projects across the state). This meant most work usually done in the spring – including summer prep – wasn't able to take place. And now subsequent pandemic-related revenue reductions and an April hiring freeze mean there is less money and fewer workers for both summer work and winter prep.
When crews can't maintain 6 feet of distance to complete a task, such as guardrail repair, they must don even more protective equipment, such as these Powered Air Purifying Respirators, which use battery packs to supply filtered air.

While our crews are back, they returned slowly as part of turning the dial on Safe Start and each county's reopening phase. Once on the job they had new protocols and gear that are important but also slows down their normal work flow. Then in June mandatory state government furloughs and hiring freezes were announced, leaving crews with even less time to complete the already backlogged work and unable to hire the temporary summer crews that normally assist our efforts.
New safety standards are important but also require more rest and hydration breaks
as crews work in warm summer months.

Weather-dependent work limits our options
Much of our work is season- and weather-dependent, so pushing it further into 2020 to make up some of the missed items won't work in all cases. Some examples of that are:
  • Roadside mowing. Spring mowing wasn't able to take place and mowing during hot summer months is a fire hazard. So we need all travelers to be extra cautious of fire dangers this year to help prevent brush fires.
  • Roadside trash, which was already a problem, is one the items our crews have to forego to prioritize safety repairs and work. And our volunteer Adopt-A-Highway crews are suspended for their own safety during the pandemic. This makes prevention even more crucial – please secure all loads and properly dispose of any trash you accumulate traveling.
  • Roadway crack repairs. These are best done in early spring while the cracks are still at their largest. Filling them in summer isn't as efficient since the cracks shrink as the warmer roadway expands, so a new repair can fail as soon as the roadway freezes again in the winter.
  • Paving is delayed in areas due to spring delays and overall backlogs. That also means less pavement striping and painting, which are also summer work staples and require long stretches of dry weather.
  • Some work – such as installing new light poles – has been delayed because it requires crews working closely together, which requires additional safety equipment. (Emergency work requiring close contact still continues).
None of these decisions or new adjustments are easy – it's a struggle to not accomplish everything we would in a “normal” summer. But 2020 is a year of altered expectations for everyone and this is yet another unfortunate example.

Please be patient with any delays or reduced service you see on our roadways and take any precautions you can to help ease the stresses on the system. It's an adjustment for everyone, but we also know that working together we can make it through this just as we've met other pandemic challenges.