Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Maintenance crews kept busy cleaning up I-90 vandalism

By Mike Allende

It’s been a frustrating week for some of our maintenance crews who work along I-90. No, we’re not talking about snow. There’s not much anyone can do about that.

We’re talking about vandalism.

The Indian John Rest Area was closed for several hours after vandals removed plumbing
from the restroom wall, causing the area to flood.

Both our Indian John and Ryegrass rest areas were hit with some significant vandalism this week. Not only does that pull our maintenance teams away from other work, it also pulls money from our maintenance budget that could go toward pothole repair or other important highway safety jobs.

Water sprays from the wall after
vandals removed plumbing from
 the Indian John Rest Area restroom.
At our Indian John Rest Area, crews found that someone had pulled the plumbing out of a restroom wall, causing flooding in and around the building. Cleanup and temporary repairs led to the rest stop, located east of Cle Elum, being closed for several hours. We’ll still need to return to do a permanent repair.

Meanwhile, at the westbound Ryegrass Rest Area, east of Ellensburg, someone decided to see how strong the touch screen monitor on our information kiosk was, smashing several divots in the screen with some kind of tool or instrument. These monitors provide travelers with information like road conditions and location of amenities. The damage likely means the monitor will fail and we’ll have to replace it sooner than expected.

Whether it’s graffiti, wire theft or situations like those we saw this week, there’s really no excuse for vandalism. In the past two years we spent $665,000 just on graffiti removal statewide, and this year we project that cost to be about $435,000. That’s not even counting the cost to make repairs to incidents like the ones we faced this week.

While we have many cameras throughout our highway system, we don’t have them everywhere, and we don’t record video on them. Most of the vandalism also seems to take place at night, making it even harder to catch. But you can help. If you see vandalism occurring on state property, whether it’s graffiti, theft or damage to signs or rest areas, please call 911 to report it.

Vandals punched several holes in an informational kiosk monitor at our Ryegrass Rest Area.

Our Ryegrass Rest Area informational kiosk, which provides useful info
to travelers, was damaged when vandals punched holes in the monitor.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

New wind and wave criteria changes threshold for potential closures of the westbound I-90 floating bridge

FINAL UPDATE 6:39 p.m. Sunday: All lanes of the I-90 floating bridge have reopened to traffic. Crews inspected the bridge after conditions died down.

UPDATE 2:18 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 18: Crews have temporarily closed the westbound I-90 floating bridge to traffic due to high winds & waves. All westbound traffic must exit at Island Crest Way on Mercer Island. There’s currently no estimated time for reopening. Eastbound I-90 remains open.

By Annie Johnson and Harmony Weinberg

Changes to how we react to wind and wave heights on the I-90 Homer M. Hadley Floating Bridge could mean a temporary closure on Sunday. This bridge carries westbound I-90 traffic, the future Sound Transit light rail tracks and the I-90 Trail.

If we hit a new threshold of sustained winds from the north of at least 26 mph (that north detail is very important and does not happen often) for two minutes and observe waves of at least 2 feet, we will not allow traffic onto the westbound I-90 bridge between Mercer Island and Seattle. Emergency vehicles will have access to the bridge at all times.

Why the change?
Wind and wave analyses performed during Sound Transit's East Link design process showed the pontoons on the westbound I-90 bridge are susceptible to damage during strong north wind events.

It's important to note that there is no immediate safety risk to the public or the bridge. However, any damage caused by strong north winds can shorten the life of the bridge.

Our Bridge Preservation Office used the analysis from Sound Transit to determine the new criteria to preserve the life of the westbound I-90 floating bridge. The new criteria requires us to close the westbound I-90 bridge to traffic when we have the following items occur simultaneously: sustained winds of at least 26 mph from the north for two minutes AND the winds create waves that are at least 2 feet tall.

How common is the new wind and wave combination?
Looking back over the past 10 years, there were eight days where wind from the north exceeded 26 mph on Lake Washington. Of those eight days, there was only one day where the sustained winds were sufficient to create a 2 foot wave.

Since we must have both sustained winds AND waves of at least 2 feet to close the bridge, it's likely we would have closed the bridge once in the past 10 years had the criteria been in place. We expect a potential closure due to the new wind and criteria to happen once every five to 10 years. A rare event. However, we are preparing and planning for it.

What's the fix?
One of the more permanent ways to prevent any damage from strong north winds is to make the bridge stronger through a construction technique known as post-tensioning, which is currently happening as part of Sound Transit's East Link project.

Post-tensioning is a common technique to compress and strengthen concrete structures, especially bridges. Contractor crews thread large steel cables through the inside of the pontoons and then tighten the cable to create one large rigid structure. This work will extend the life of the bridge by strengthening the existing pontoons, which lessens the chances of damage. The post-tensioning work will allow the bridge to withstand stronger winds and higher waves and is expected to be complete in fall of 2018. When that work is complete the wind criteria will be reevaluated.

How much notice will travelers receive in the event of a westbound I-90 closure?
We would like to give as much notice as possible to drivers about potential closures, however, we will not close the road until all the criteria is met. Once that happens, we can close the roadway in about 15 minutes. We will use social media, our mobile app and overhead message signs to alert travelers.

As is the case with any emergency closure, whether it's due to multiple spin outs on Snoqualmie Pass or a major collision, we all need to be prepared for delays whenever we hit the road. We will continue to do our best to keep you informed of any and all closures that could affect you. In the Seattle and Mercer Island areas, you can get real-time traffic information on your phone with the WSDOT traffic app, track the WSDOT Traffic Twitter feed and check out our Facebook page.

The backstory
I'm sure you're wondering how we got here and why the bridge hasn't closed in the past when we've had high winds.

The westbound I-90 floating bridge was designed in the late 1970s and built in the 1980s and, like our hairstyles and clothes, many things have changed in the world of floating bridge engineering since then. If we were to build a brand new I-90 bridge today, it would likely look significantly different that the I-90 floating bridges you drive across today.

It's not that today's bridge is unsafe or needs to be replaced but we've learned a lot over the past 40 years. We now have much higher 100-year- storm criteria and know more about local storm and wind patterns.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Pass closures – be prepared this weekend and every winter weekend

By Barbara LaBoe

We get it. Nobody likes a pass closure. You’re headed to see family, or taking kids to a sporting event or just trying to hit the slopes -- and a delay is the last thing you need. But, winter weather can be unpredictable, so it’s always better to be prepared before you head out.

So, why do passes close? The short answer is because we want to keep everyone – travelers, our crews and law enforcement – safe. It’s our top priority and at times, that means delays or closures.

The slightly longer answer is there are three main reasons for pass closures:
  • Vehicle collisions/spin outs – Many pass closures are caused by vehicles that spin out, crash or slide off the roadway – often because the vehicle wasn’t properly equipped or the driver was going too fast for conditions. Slow down, stay alert and leave extra space between vehicles during winter conditions.
  • Avalanche control - We monitor avalanche risk throughout the winter and at times shut down roadways to force an avalanche rather than risk unstable slopes giving way while drivers are on the roadway. We try to schedule these during non-peak hours, but Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate.
  • Road conditions/clearing – During heavy storms or extreme conditions, it may not be safe for our crews to be out clearing the roadway.
Chain up! It’s the law
Don’t be the person who shuts down the pass for everyone. Our crews work hard to pre-treat and clear roadways, but we need your help too.

Roughly half the Snoqualmie Pass closures are due to spin outs or crashes, when we must close the road to bring tow trucks and other response vehicles to get someone out of a ditch – holding up everyone else traveling. Often these vehicles don’t have proper equipment or drivers were going too fast for conditions.

To help ensure everyone is following the roadway safety restrictions this winter, we’ve partnered with the Washington State Patrol on chain emphasis patrols during storms. Troopers are out checking to ensure drivers have proper traction equipment when it’s required, including issuing tickets at times. Failing to chain up when required can lead to a $500 ticket, so in addition to safety, it makes good financial sense to obey road restrictions as well. (A reminder – studded tires do NOT satisfy chain requirements.)

Practice installing your chains at home, before you head out. This helps you be quicker and more prepared if you do need to install them on the side of a roadway. Don’t know how to install chains? Check out our online video.

If you don’t have the proper equipment to travel during pass restrictions, then delay your trip or find alternate transportation. We want everyone to get where they’re going safely – and no trip is worth risking your safety as well as others on the road.

Be Prepared
You need more than just traction tires and chains during winter weather.

While our crews work hard to keep roadways open, you need to be prepared for unexpected stops if roads need to be closed for clearing, avalanche work or unsafe conditions.

Please be sure you pack your winter vehicle kit (pdf) to ensure you have enough food, water, warm clothes and other supplies if you’re delayed or need to stop unexpectedly.

Stay Informed
We have a variety of tools to keep you informed both before and during your travels. Use them early and often to stay up-to-date on conditions and any closures or delays.
  • Check out online tools, including mobile apps, traffic cameras and email alerts*.
  • Visit our online traveler information about traffic, weather and ferry schedules. 
  • Follow WSDOT’s social media accounts, such as Twitter and Facebook
  • Pre-program 530 AM and 1610 AM to vehicle radios for highway advisory radio alerts.
  • Check current chain and traction requirements on the WSDOT passes website or by calling 5-1-1, and watch for highway advisory signs.
*Never use your phone or mobile device while driving – it’s dangerous and against the law. Have a passenger check road updates or pull over into a safe area, like a rest area, before checking on your own.

Again, we work hard to keep closures and delays to a minimum, but we still need travelers to be prepared and follow road restrictions when they’re posted. These two steps can help make everyone’s trips a little easier.

Crews work around the clock to clear snow and ice – and bring on extra staff during large storms. Please help us keep the passes open by driving for conditions and following traction restrictions.
Traction restrictions are put in place due to hazardous conditions – please obey all restrictions and drive prepared.
Slide offs and crashes are a regular cause of pass closures, as tow trucks need room to respond. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Fish window and Colman Dock construction

By Broch Bender

A fish window sounds like a great way to watch our gilled friends cruise through the water, but it's actually something a bit more important, and marks a significant milestone on our Colman Dock replacement project in Seattle.

You see, our crews can only do in-water construction work like pile-driving, from August to mid-February each year when migrating salmon are less likely to be around. Hence, the fish window. And that fish window closes on Feb. 15.
The fish window only allows in-water construction, such as driving steel piles to support the new dock, between August 1 and mid-February. We use a high power bubble machine in the water to minimize noise from pile driving.
That means that construction will still be happening on the project, but crews won't be driving support piles or doing any other work below the water line until August 1 when the window opens back up again.

The good news is, we've made great progress toward building a new terminal! During the last six months workers successfully installed 167 steel piles to support the future passenger-only dock and one-third of the trestle that will support a new ferry terminal building – all while protecting the environment.  A total of 500 steel piles are needed to make the busiest ferry terminal in the state safer in a major earthquake.
During the 2017-18 fish window, we installed steel piles to support the first part of the new main terminal
building, and the new King County Water Taxi and Kitsap Transit Fast Ferry location.

Keeping protected species safe
All in-water construction at Colman Dock temporarily stops when protected species, such as southern resident orcas or other marine mammals, are in sight. However, unlike our orca neighbors, migrating salmon can be tougher to detect beneath the surface of Elliott Bay. That's where the annual "fish window" comes in. Our biologists work with regulatory agencies to study salmon migration patterns and know when they are most likely to be in the area, and most likely not, and determine the window based on that information.

What's the big deal? What could happen to the salmon? Good question. The impact hammer used to drive in the last 10-15 feet of each steel pile creates underwater shockwaves that could cause them harm.

Though much quieter than pile driving, sediment capping is also done during the fish window, outside of the salmon migration period. Sediment capping carefully drops a layer of sand and gravel onto the bottom of the bay around the dock, to cap off hazardous materials that could threaten marine life. The impact of the sand and gravel hitting the bottom temporarily causes a hazy mix of sediment and saltwater, called turbidity, which could be difficult for fish to navigate. But once that settles down after a few minutes, fish and other species have a cleaner home.

We want to make sure everyone, from workers to wildlife, stay safe during the project.
The noise and vibration involved with installing steel support piles is disruptive
to marine mammals search for food and navigating through Puget Sound.

Upcoming construction at Colman Dock
Just because in-water work will pause doesn’t mean work will stop. Construction to rebuild the state’s largest ferry terminal is like a game of Tetris, fitting in work where it makes sense from the bottom up. Now that the fish window is closed, construction activity shifts to build the new terminal and passenger-only dock atop the steel pile foundation.

Starting in early March, crews will tear down sections of the  existing terminal building. Customers can expect full ferry service throughout construction, with no reduction in the number of sailings. However, there will be fewer amenities and public space while the terminal building is under construction through mid-2019.

Exterior demolition of the existing terminal building begins in late spring 2018, clearing the way to install new steel support piles on the north side of the dock once the next fish window opens this August.

Building bridges at home and abroad

By Craig Smiley

Roadwork and construction are so common that they can feel like a part of our everyday life. We see caution signs and commute through work zones, notice pavement going down and bridges coming up out of the ground. For example, if you drive on Interstate 405 near the State Route 167 interchange in Renton, you have probably seen the progress our crews have been making on the I-405/SR 167 Interchange Direct Connector Project this past year.
Seeing examples of fall protection

With all of our construction projects, we place a heavy emphasis on safety. It’s our top priority to get our crews and public home safely, and we’re always reminding drivers to give our crews a brake. Many hazards exist on any construction site, especially complex roadway projects. Falls, extreme weather, and working near heavy equipment, in confined spaces such as trenches and near fast-moving traffic, often at night, are just some of the risks that our crews face.

But safety standards and practices can vary widely around the world. That’s why the University of Washington Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences recently hosted a weeklong seminar on roadway construction safety for the Federation of Mongolian Road Workers. This group is composed of trade union leaders, electrical engineers, educators/safety trainers, labor economists, social insurance professionals, and other consultants. A few Mongolian roadway construction company owners also attended. The UW approached us to provide our perspectives and best practices through the lens of an active construction project. On one of those days, our Direct Connector project team had the opportunity to share our culture of safety with the group and tour key work zones near the busy interchange in Renton.

In the 21 provinces of Mongolia, there are about 30,000 miles of roads – compared to 4.12 million miles of road in the United States – and about 25 percent are paved. Currently there are no highways in Mongolia, only single-lane roads, but that is about to change.

With a new roadway construction push scheduled in the coming year, the Mongolian Labor Union Association has made health and safety a major goal and priority. During the tour, we showed them several examples of the emphasis placed on safety for our workers and the measures our project team takes to protect the environment. We also gave them information about hazard analysis and mitigation, on-site safety, and the importance of personal protective equipment.

The Direct Connector construction team is proud of our culture of safety and we thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to exchange ideas with the group.
Learning about trench safety