Thursday, December 27, 2007

Drivers work together to clear I-90

Every once and a while we hear fascinating stories about people working together to help each other. On I-90 Wednesday afternoon one of those situations occurred, here is that story. (Photos from the scene thanks to Igor Gulchuk.)

Westbound traffic on Interstate 90 came to an abrupt halt Wednesday afternoon when a tree came down and blocked the entire roadway near the Franklin Falls bridge. Three lanes filled bumper to bumper with holiday travelers skidded to avoid each other and avoid what could have been a major traffic tie-up.

Russ and Sheila Fode and their two teenage children Eric and Emily were traveling over Snoqualmie Pass from Wenatchee to Olympia to visit family Wednesday afternoon and witnessed the tree coming down. They were hoping for a smooth trip, trying to avoid getting caught on the wrong side of the pass when crews started avalanche control work later that afternoon.

“Out our window, we noticed snow cascading off a tree up ahead,” started Sheila Fode. “Then the tree started to sway and then just fell straight down across the entire road. It happened within a matter of seconds,” she said. The road was carrying heavy traffic, but no one was hit or injured. The Fode’s were three cars back from where the tree fell.

“It’s truly a miracle that on one was injured. A few seconds earlier or later, someone could have been seriously hurt or even killed,” she added. Drivers immediately began getting out of their cars to make sure no one had been caught under the tree.

“Everyone’s first thoughts were about drivers closest to the tree. The Christmas spirit came out in everyone,” she said. Information about the fallen tree was passed down the line of traffic. Once it was determined everyone was safe, Russ Fode began recruiting people to help him move the tree off the road.

“People standing around were saying it was too big to move, but my husband Russ knew that if we got enough people to help, we could move the tree.” After a short discussion about the safest way to move the tree, nearly fifty people positioned themselves along the tree trunk and slowly moved the tree out of the road. One person carrying an axe in his trunk trimmed limbs out of the way.

“We could hear cheers from people in the back up as we moved the tree; it was a great feeling,” Fode said. Within just a few minutes, the tree was out of the road and people were back in their vehicles. Fode estimated the total amount of delay was approximately 30 minutes. “It’s amazing the things you can accomplish when everyone pitches in and works together,” she said.

WSDOT maintenance crews remove hundreds of trees each year that pose a potential danger to motorists. Still, saturated soils and heavy snowfall can combine to drop trees along the roadway. Drivers are always encouraged to remain alert and watch for potential hazards.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Virtual open houses...

Would you be willing to talk to us about a project if you could do it from home?

Before you see construction workers building a bridge or expanding a highway, our engineers spend a lot of time carefully planning and designing a project. We do our best to engage you and your neighbors to help us make the best decisions along the way; however, we’ve noticed that fewer and fewer people are coming to our public meetings and open houses. We understand that you’re extremely busy and that it’s difficult to take time to talk with us about a project that might not be built for years. You can always call us, e-mail us, visit our Web site, read our newsletter or send us a letter, but none of those offer much opportunity for conversation and feedback. We need your perspective to help build community values into our plans and projects. How can we gain your perspective if an open house or public meeting doesn’t fit your busy schedule or isn’t your cup of tea? We’re looking for new ways to engage you in discussion about our projects that will affect all of us.

How about a virtual open house?
A virtual open house is an Internet based meeting where we can meet online and discuss transportation projects -- an online version of an open house. Anyone can attend the virtual open house by logging on to a Web site and joining the conversation. We could offer a live camera feed of presentations, documents and other materials and an opportunity to participate in discussions ask questions and receive feedback. You could participate without fighting traffic, hiring a babysitter or even putting on a pair of shoes.

Would you be more likely to attend a virtual open house instead a physical open house?

Our first virtual open house
The I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East project is a $525 million, rural highway widening project located in the Cascade Mountains. This isn’t just a local project. It affects millions of people from Puget Sound’s deep-water ports and metropolitan cities to the farm communities, industries and outdoor recreation areas of eastern Washington.

In the summer of 2005, we held several public meetings in an effort to engage the public regarding the project. We held five meetings across the state in Seattle, Tacoma, Hyak (at the Summit of Snoqualmie Pass), Ellensburg and Spokane. This was an exhaustive and costly process. On average about 90 people attended each meeting.

The following year, we needed to talk with the public again. In an effort to increase public participation and save time and money, we tried a virtual open house in conjunction with just one public meeting held in Hyak. In addition to the 90 people who attended the physical open house, over 100 people attended the virtual open house – effectively doubling the public participation.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Got a storm story?

We often hear that WSDOT crews are out on the roadways taking care of whatever situation is
presented to them making the roads safe and passable to travelers whatever their destination. 

We talked to some of them to see what they had to do during the recent storm and we have some amazing stories of those crews and the situations they were presented with.  From a tree falling on a maintenance truck, to a crew that had to share a hotel room because they couldn't get home to their families, to the crews who cleared 58 avalanches to get a road open.

How did the storm affect you? What did you have to deal with. If you have a story to share, we'd love to hear it.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Storm Damage...

We have some photos, taken by WSDOT crews, of the recent storm damage posted to our Flickr site. The damage on I-5 near Chehalis in Lewis county is just incredible.

Here is a sample:

Check out more of the devastating affects water and snow can cause.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Travel Graphs: Followup

We took the time this last holiday weekend to make sure that the recommendations we provided on travel times on I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass were accurate. We collected traffic data and placed it on top of our predictions, which were based on historic data. Turns out we were very close. With any traffic measurement outside influences must be considered. Fortunately we experienced very mild weather conditions across the state and few traffic incidents.

We also noticed that more drivers traveled on Friday and Saturday, rather than the traditional Sunday evening rush for home. That helps keep traffic moving for everyone and we greatly appreciated those drivers who altered their schedules.

The colored thick lines on the graphs represent the estimated traffic volumes, the black lines on the graphs represent actual traffic.

On a usage note, the travel graphs for I-90 were looked at over 1,000 times a day the 20th, 21st and 22nd of November.

Thanks again to those who adjusted their trips to avoid being in and creating congestion.

Anyone else find these useful and use them to plan your trip? We would love to hear your story.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Easton Bridge Repair continued...

Those clever folks working on the I-90 Easton bridge project have figured out how to add some temporary cameras to the bridge location so you can watch the progress of the project.
They were able to place the camera so you can actually see the bridge.

Media is fun isn't it. We also have photos of the girders being created, and a video (on YouTube) showing the challenges of setting the girders on the bridge. The snow you see in the background just showed up this weekend and luckily they had a break in the weather to be able to get this done.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Know before you go...

I always like to check the cameras and traffic conditions before I travel. It's nice to know if I need to delay my trip or plan to leave earlier. I put together some of my favorite places to use on our Web site to help you plan your trip.

For real time conditions:

Recently, some innovative transportation engineers added a few more cameras on I-90 so that you can get a better view of what traffic is like. They have this really cool trailer they call a "portable work zone" that has a computerized variable message sign and a camera on it that can send images to the Web site. For the holiday weekend, this portable work zone will be sitting near Cle Ellum, then moved to the Easton bridge Nov. 26th, once the work starts there. Check out the temporary cameras...

If you are traveling with your family over any of the passes, take the time to prepare and drive safely. It's worth it.

How about U.S. 2?
Another permanent camera also was added on U.S. 2 at Stevens Pass so now you can see both the east and west side of the pass .

Planning to travel to Canada?
For value, you can't beat the border traffic page. For the low cost of nothing you’ll find wait times, just underneath the map, letting you know how long it might take to cross the border. Now how much would you pay?

Want to plan ahead?
Knowing in advance the best time to leave is such a great way to have a less stressful trip. If you haven't seen them yet, I highly recommend checking out the travel graphs that were created for some key areas in the state:

I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass
US 2 over Stevens Pass
I-5 south of Olympia
I-5 near the U.S-Canada border

Our forward-thinking traffic engineers have already started doing some work to show how the current traffic patterns are matching up to what we predicted, and they are incredibly close -- almost an exact match.

If you have a cell phone, try calling 5-1-1. It’s a great way to get traffic conditions, weather and more. My second favorite thing to check is the mobile traffic site. You can get Seattle traffic, ferry schedule info, and mountain pass reports by pointing your mobile browser to

WSDOT crews will be on staff all weekend to make sure we can keep you informed of what might affect your travels during the holiday weekend.

As always, pack your patience, plan ahead, leave plenty of room for stopping, and drive safely out there.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Easton bridge repair and working at WSDOT

I never know what to expect when I  come into work each day.  The Easton bridge is a great example of how things can change very quickly at WSDOT and how fun and exciting it can be working here.  

If you didn't already know, an over-height load drove into a bridge over Interstate 90 in Easton recently.  The impact of the truck was like flipping a switch, mobilizing teams throughout WSDOT, including engineers, inspectors, communicators and contractors.

Just another day at the office.

WSDOT crews, dressed in reflective coats and pants, immediately closed the highway. They waved drivers to the off-ramp and set up orange barrels to block the two lanes (as you can see in the start of this video).

The overpass bridge, damaged by the oversized load, had to be closed with concrete barriers and orange cones. Keep in mind this started at 4 am. Bridge engineers were called out to inspect the damage and concluded that all six support girders were irreparably damaged. The bridge deck was no longer safe for vehicles to travel across it or underneath it. WSDOT had to tear down the bridge before traffic could flow freely on eastbound I-90.

Communications staff fired off news items and highway alerts and updated the Web site. Media inquiries followed, and communicators established a schedule to get reporters on scene and provide updates. A communications manager for the local area drove 75 miles to the scene to coordinate interviews.

Coordination happened quickly. It had to so drivers could keep moving. Surprisingly, the length of eastbound backups fluctuated between only one to three miles. Delays were only about eight to 10 minutes. Five TV reporters plus camera operators came to the scene in satellite trucks to do live interviews. Newspaper and radio reporters called in for updates. The Washington State Patrol trooper who fined the semi truck driver who struck the bridge returned to give statements.

Construction engineers found contractors who could do the work right away. Overnight, Rhine’s giant concrete cracker, which looks just like a giant nutcracker, worked carefully alongside the concrete hydraulic ram to chew apart the eastbound half of the bridge without damaging the rest of the bridge structure. Bridge engineers and inspectors were on site throughout the night as the girders were removed. Most of the engineers and inspectors put in a 20-hour day.

By 3:45 a.m. – less than 24 hours after the oversize load hit the bridge – the bridge was down, the mess swept up, the orange cones removed, and traffic was back on eastbound I-90 at Easton. We have some great before-and-after photos of what this looked like.

Coordination didn’t just happen in-house. The community needed to know what was going on, too. Maintenance supervisors went door to door to notify the community about what happened, what we were doing about it, and what local folks needed to do to access the highway.

The day following the initial bridge damage, WSDOT bridge engineers immediately began designing the bridge replacement girders. A public open house was planned for Nov. 15 at Easton Community School, outlining WSDOT's next steps in getting the bridge repaired and re-opened to traffic.

There was talk about waiting until spring to repair the bridge, but Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond encouraged construction and bridge engineers to get it fixed before Christmas so that the community of Easton could have access to the highway system as soon as possible.

Construction of the “Bulb-T” girders is currently under way in Tacoma at one of the closest manufacturing facilities for pre-stressed girders. Once the girders are built and the concrete cured, the company will ship them directly to the project site.

What is out of our control however, is the weather. We are still hoping for mild weather for the first couple of weeks of December to get the girders up there and get that bridge back open. The girders on a truck will be an oversize load and keep in mind that oversize loads can't travel if there are traction advisories, so the shipment  is weather dependent.

And this level of coordination doesn't stop. The Web site gets continual updates, the news releases continue to go out with the latest updates, the engineering work has to continue to get the bridge back open to the local community.

As you can see, coordination and cooperation happened from all angles across the state, involving communications, engineers and upper management. That level of teamwork and fast action is part of the deal here, and it’s what makes WSDOT a fascinating place to work.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Travel graphs in context...

Remember those travel graphs you recently took a poll on? We took your advice on how they should look and have them available for you to see in context.

We published information today about the best times to travel during the Thanksgiving holiday for a couple of highly traveled routes:

I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass
US 2 over Stevens Pass
I-5 south of Olympia
I-5 near the Canadian Border

Thanks again for your feedback, hope you find these useful.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Getting ready for winter

The leaves are almost off the trees and there is a chill in the air. Winter is fast approaching. The west side had one windstorm already this year, reinforcing what we know from last years storms -- preparedness pays off.

We are taking steps to make sure that our crews are ready to clear the roads, and that we can keep you informed at a moments notice in the event of a storm. But that's only half the battle. Taking simple steps to prepare could save you much hassle and headache, and give you peace of mind during that next storm.

Here is some of my favorite advice, gleaned from recent preparedness materials that I read.

  1. Don't get out of your car if you are near a recent avalanche. Your chances of being found are much better if you are inside of your car.
  2. Don't use a gas oven for heat, or light up the barbecue inside your home. Surprisingly, this was one of the hardest learned lessons from last year's windstorms. It was astounding how many people tried heating their homes or cooking inside, and ended up with carbon monoxide poisoning.
  3. Fill your car’s gas tank, especially if you know snow is in the forecast.
  4. Pack an emergency kit in the trunk of your car, and one for your home.
  5. Create a family plan, and one for your kids (pdf). The kids will appreciate the contact-in-case-of-emergency cards. My kids carry them in their school backpacks, and they feel safer knowing they are able to contact me whenever they need to.
  6. Talk to your employer in advance so you know what’s expected of you in a snow storm. Can you stay home with your kids?
  7. Get a radio that allows you to stay informed. At the very least, the radio will give you and your family something to listen to while you play cards when the power goes out.

I hope you find these as helpful as I did. Take the time to prepare, it's worth it.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Nasty Weather – Help Decide How You Are Alerted About Weather Conditions

The graph survey was so successful we’ve been asked to try out another. This one is for weather reporting. Be prepared, however, this survey is a tad, em, shall we say, “involved.” It takes few minutes to fill out.

All the same, the point of the survey makes it worth doing. And that point is to improve the way we report how weather is affecting highway travel – highway travelers and commercial vehicle companies. The survey also solicits feedback from the professionals who plan highway maintenance. All the right people to ask.

The survey sponsor, North/West Passage, is a team of eight states working together to improve weather reporting on highways in Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

The survey runs until the end of January. Give them a hand – and fill out the online survey today!

Friday, October 12, 2007

You be the judge...

Thanks again for taking the time to offer your opinion. As of Tuesday, October 23rd we have closed the poll and the Vertical Graph is the winner by a nose. Thanks to your feedback (almost 800 votes), we will use this style of graph when we publish the best time to travel during the next holiday weekend. Even though the poll is closed we still welcome your comments letting us know which one works better for you. Thanks!

Original Post:
We have used several different styles of graphics to display the best time to travel during holiday weekends. Planning ahead by leaving a little later or leaving a little earlier will help you avoid peak travel times and arrive at your destination with minimum delay. We are hoping you could take some time and let us know which of these graphs helps you make that decision with the greatest of ease.

Which one is easiest to read? Which one makes more sense?

The Color Band Graph:

The Horizontal Graph:

The Vertical Graph:

The Clock View:

We are always looking to improve and we appreciate you taking the time to do this.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Highway History

Did you know that north-to-south highways are generally numbered with odd numbers and east-to-west routes carry even number names? It's true.

Ever wonder why State Route 16, which runs generally north to south, is considered an east-to-west highway? Me either ... but still, some people ask such great questions.

That's why really smart, historically minded people have gathered Washington State highway history resources at the main WSDOT web site. The material really is fascinating for the historically minded among us. The WSDOT Library has a great staff and they are incredibly helpful when you are looking for some information.

Remember the old days when you could call up the local library's reference desk and ask a friendly librarian a question? You can still do that with the WSDOT Library staff.

Personally, I've been asked questions about SR 16 since joining WSDOT years ago. The road earns its east-to-west label despite its more north-to-south route because it connects two north-to-south routes -- SR 3 and Interstate 5.

Here's another SR 16 item: Did you also know that the milepost numbers get out of sync around the Tacoma Narrows Bridge? Yep ... When SR 16 was re-routed in the 1980s through Tacoma, the route was shortened. You can amaze your friends at parties with that one.

Another great resource for Washington highway history is Wikipedia. It has detailed stories for nearly every state highway, even some stories on decommissioned state highways. A WSDOT employee started his own state highway history web page in 1999. It's a very cool resource.

The WSDOT celebrated its 100-year anniversary in 2005. We've come a long way on the state's highways. While most of my colleagues, journalists, politicians, and motorists are interested in what's next ... and I am too ... it's some times very useful to know what used to be.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Weekly report ... Have you seen it?

We've talked before about the WSDOT quarterly Gray Notebook, a regular three-month summary of agency accountability measures. It's detailed and technical, but very readable.

We know that not everyone has the patience for such dense information. So each week WSDOT publishes a weekly report that includes information on the latest project updates, interesting highway incidents and other news about agency activities. There also is a weekly podcast for those who want their information in an audio format.

How else can we meet your information expectations? What information would you like to see?

Friday, August 10, 2007

WSDOT’s I-5 Downtown Seattle Work Starts Tonight

After a safety briefing, contractor crews are now resting up to be ready for overnight work that will kick-off up to 19 consecutive days of lane closures on northbound I-5 from Spokane Street to I-90. We will be logging our construction progress on our new traffic and construction information page, where drivers can also get up-to-date traffic information about I-5 and alternate routes to help plan their trip.

Tell us about your commute during these challenging days of intense lane and ramp closures. Many of you have already shared your projected plans on our earlier I-5 blog post. Now we want to hear stories from the road and any tips you can pass along to others trying to navigate around the construction. Oh and remember, if you have questions about the project our project hotline has answers at 206.440.4704.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

US 12, White Pass Closes

This wasn't exactly how it was planned. But nonetheless, contractors working to repair a slide are on US 12, just west of the summit at White Pass, will have to keep the highway closed for several days and possibly through the weekend (Note: The roadway re-opened to traffic late Sunday, July 29).

This is very bad news for local residents. We are notifying local communities as best we can about the closure. But the road can't open with the unstable slope.

Even worse, SR 123 is closed due to rockslides that happened last winter that aren't repaired (see photo). That means major detours for people who have to get across White Pass this weekend.

We're sorry the inconvenience. But when we begin working on a slide repair like this one - even with the best pre-construction analysis - some times Mother Nature has a surprise.

Visit the project web site for more information. And check 5-1-1 on your telephone through the weekend in case workers - who will be working straight through until this is repaired - are able to finish ahead of their worst-case scenario.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Share Your Plans for Major I-5 Construction in Seattle

We're counting down the days to around-the clock lane closures on northbound I-5 Aug. 10-29. This week crews are removing and replacing an actual expansion joint so they can troubleshoot any problems so work can go smoothly when it counts.

We hope you'll test and troubleshoot your plans now so that taking the bus, traveling an alternate route or logging into work from home will go smoothly during the 19 straight days of closures.

Tell us about your plans and share your troubleshooting commute experiences with us and each other on this blog. Everyone has a unique commute from their door to their destination but we all share the same roads. Your experience my help someone else get through this construction.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Enjoy the walk, and then the drive

Five years ago this week, I was fortunate to help organize an event celebrating the signing of the contract that officially began the construction phase of the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge. The ceremony took place July 16, 2002 at Tacoma Community College. A few television cameras huddled in a non-descript room to capture the comments and signatures of the top managers at the WSDOT and the contractor.

This weekend, the culmination of more than 3.5 million man hours will unveil itself in a tremendous display. We think possibly 40,000 people will walk the bridge. A far cry from a few managers in a conference room!

The opening celebration is earning coverage from around the country. Television trucks and technicians will pull up to specially designated parking areas. Reporters with notepads in hand will crawl all over the bridge. Photographers will be snapping pictures. A million stories will walk across the bridge on Sunday.

But for me, a guy who writes press releases for a living and some times blogs, the biggest event comes Monday when the bridge opens to traffic. This bridge - the longest suspension bridge built in the United States since the 1960s - was built for cars and trucks. I can't wait to see traffic free flowing across the bridge.

The citizens of Gig Harbor deserve our thanks for their patience during this construction. I suppose it is little solace that the community had a front-row seat for the five-year-long construction show? It probably remains little comfort that today the community has another amazing monument to modern engineering - a living example of man's desire to cross to the other side? After all, each trip from Gig Harbor to Tacoma will cost $3 (unless you have a Good To Go! account).

Five years ago, signing the paperwork seemed like such a long walk before the bridge opened to traffic. On Sunday morning, my wife, son and I will join so many of you on the final steps before we reach our goal.

Enjoy the walk. I'll see you there!

Friday, June 22, 2007

A day for reflection

Last night a terrible tragedy occurred. A worker in a construction zone was struck and killed by a driver who swerved into him. A second worker was also hit and is luckily resting at home.

It's a scary reminder of what we already know.

We have all been guilty of taking that unnecessary risk while driving. A momentary lapse in focus, reaching down to adjust the stereo, turning our head momentarily to check on the kids in the back, look over to see what that is on the side of the road, only to look up and all of a sudden that car in front of us is much closer that expected.

We drive so often that we forget that a simple risky behavior can sometimes change lives. In this case, for the driver and the family of the worker it is a night that will never be forgotten.

The driver was arrested for Investigation of Vehicular Homicide (possible alcohol involved). They could go to jail and will have to live the rest of their life knowing they killed a person.

Lets all take this opportunity to take a second and reflect on our own driving habits, for the sake of our own families and the families of those who risk their lives every day improving the safety of the conditions of the roadways, which we often take for granted.

Let's not forget this worker and millions of others out there across the country working right now.

“Our hearts go out to his family. He was one of the good guys," said Brian Nielsen, WSDOT.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Greg Biffle Work Zone PSA, WSDOT

The Greg Biffle Work Zone PSA was filmed in 2006. WSDOT is proud that Biffle and Gov. Christine Gregoire continue to support efforts to raise work zone safety awareness.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Give me rest ... Rest Areas that is

They aren't glamorous. But, for those of us with an aversion to truck stop restrooms, the typical safety rest area is as beautiful as an oasis in the most arid of lands.

Through the years driving the state's highways and across the West, I've become somewhat of a connoisseur of rest areas. Washington's facilities are clean and functional. They are, in a word or two, very well maintained. And, these facilities are also well used.

Believe it or not, 21.5 million ... yes, the "m" with the "illion," made a pit stop at a safety rest area somewhere in Washington in 2006. That's more than 200,000 more than in 2005.

The Toutle River rest area in Cowlitz County saw nearly 3.3 million visits last year. Indian John Hill on I-90 near Snoqualmie Pass had more than 2 million visitors in 2006. Even the Telford rest area in Lincoln County had 145,000 visits.

So the next time you visit a safety rest area and spot a WSDOT maintenance worker keeping the place nice, tell him or her how much you appreciate their effort. Without them, we might all be lining up at the truck stop.

Friday, June 1, 2007

Helping WSDOT projects and critters get along...

My name is Michael MacDonald and I work in the environmental section of WSDOT. My job is to make sure WSDOT projects and critters get along. This is a real thrill for me in general but it gets especially exciting every year about this time when I climb out to the underside of the I-5 Ship Canal Bridge to band juvenile peregrine falcons.

I’ve been anticipating the bird nesting season all winter. The coordination was set up with Bridge Maintenance and members of the Falcon Research Group. We were meeting near the Northgate Mall parking lot as we have for the past five years. We schedule the visit to coincide with a lull in traffic and just before the I-5 express lanes send traffic north.

After a safety briefing, donning a body harness, a last minute check of banding equipment, and plan of attack, we load into the truck followed by the safety of the big bumper truck.

It’s exciting to reach the drop off point mid-span of the bridge. I mentally prepare myself going down the ladder on the outside of the bridge with the 80-foot plus drop to the park below. My redundant safety lanyard clips on and off the metal rungs as I descend 30ish feet until I reach the pier cap. As my feet touch the massive concrete the male falcon is on us. Floating in the wind at eye level, the smaller male “cacks” a defensive warning. He’s the same resident male and in the past he’s played a role in defending his newborn chicks. He gets your attention while the larger female goes in for the strike from behind. I turn to see where she is, hoping I can find her before she hits me. Luckily she’s perched 50 feet away at the other end of the pier cap and gives me enough time to orient myself and check on the decent of my companions. We’re all down and clicked on to the safety cable before she takes her first crack at us. Three of us are exposed to the unhindered flyway and she predictably takes advantage of it scraping her talons across our helmets and shoulders. We’ve learned to counter her attacks with in a Mary Poppins fashion. We may look silly sporting the umbrella but it’s effective to confuse and frustrate her as she tries to bully her way through the material.

I quickly round up the four youngsters found huddled in a gap and gently put them into a sack. They act as if they’re world is about to end and I’m sure they’re questioning why their F-15 mother isn’t destroying the intruders as she’s done on every other occasion. Despite being only 21 days from a peep in the shell they take their shots as best they can and clamp onto my bare fingers several startling times. I’m concentrating on not hurting the fragile fresh blood-filled fluffy feathers but also trying to anticipate the pummeling I’m about to take.

Momma is going berserk and finally gets a clean shot at my back sinking her talons through three layers but barely grazes the skin. She gains speed and clips me again. Then grabs my helmet edge with her talons and strokes her wings as if she’s trying to lift it off so she can have a really good whack at me. Good thing it’s strapped on. With the babies bundled up and quiet now Momma stands by the nest box and looks around forlornly for where her babies may be. We clamp metal unique ID bands on both lower legs of the juveniles. Once more I leave myself wide open for a drubbing as I return them to their cubbyhole. Momma flaps around but doesn’t take a shot this time. We leave for the ladder 20 minutes later and we’re back up to the bridge deck where our ride awaits right on schedule.

I hope at least one of the youngsters will survive to adulthood and carry on the genes of Bell and Stewart, their grandparents from the Washington Mutual Tower.

People ask me why we band the falcons and what falcons have to do with road and bridge building. We try to be good stewards of the environment. With the falcons, we are in a unique position. They like our bridges. Our bridges like them. They help us keep the bridge clear and pest free. In exchange, we help track the juveniles so experts can learn more about their life and, in turn, we can help rejuvenate their species which only recently came off the threatened species list.

By Michael MacDonald

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Celebrate the Tacoma Narrows Bridge on July 15

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge public celebration finally was announced yesterday. The celebration, which will take place July 15, honors the communities the bridge serves, the drivers who will use it every day, and the men and women who put in more than 3.5 million work hours to construct the new bridge. That's a tall order, but we think we're up for it.

We're planning for a lot of people. There will be shuttles from remote lots. We will have comfort stations along the route. And you can expect plenty of "ribbon" to be cut throughout the day. But bring your walking shoes. You should expect to walk a couple of miles during a trip across the bridge and back.

Here's how it's shaping up so far:
Type of event: Community celebration that gives guests full bridge deck access.
Activities: 5K bridge run (sponsored by MultiCare), activity stations with once-in-a-life-time photo opportunities, general public ribbon cuttings, an official dedication.
Event duration: Run begins at 8 a.m.Deck opens for viewing between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. We will begin clearing the deck at 4 p.m. to get ready to open the bridge to traffic the next day.

More information will be posted at the project web site as we move closer to the date - so check back often. Contact Victoria Tobin, WSDOT's TNB opening coordinator, at (206) 375-2412 if you have more questions.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Overlooked Overpasses: Living in the Shadow of the new TNB

Tacoma’s fascination with the majestic new bridge about to open over the Narrows is completely understandable. I’ve hiked the catwalk, strolled the span, and descended 25 flights of stairs to get an inside look at a caisson – all the while awestruck at the remarkable engineering feat I was witnessing.

Still, I can’t help but think two other Tacoma bridges under construction may not be receiving their just due. The new Yakima Avenue and Delin Street bridges – over I-5 near the Tacoma Dome – are growing up in the shadow of the new TNB, the spotlight-stealing crown jewel of Pierce County.

The new bridges are being constructed as part of the I-5 widening project through downtown. (A how-to-build-an-overpass Web page is in the works.)

While the two Tacoma overpasses may not measure up to the new TNB with respect to wow-factor, historical significance or length (TNB, 5,400 feet; Yakima, 391 feet; Delin, 428 feet), the planning, engineering and work that goes into building them – without stopping traffic on I-5 – certainly is worthy of high praise.

This is not to say the work has transpired entirely without fanfare. As I make my way through downtown Tacoma on I-5 on my way to Olympia each day, it’s apparent that drivers are taking second and third peeks at the 70-ton vibratory hammer as it pushes 50-foot casings into the earth. (I peek, too.)

Each step in the process, from demolition, to excavation for new abutments walls, to column-foundation work, has captured the attention of passersby.

Curious drivers tap lightly on their brakes as they merge onto the freeway from downtown, providing them just an extra second or two to check out the imposing cranes and augers, and the giant, cylindrical shaft cages lying length-wise in the vacant center lanes.

In fact, all this impressive work may be backing up traffic a bit and slowing down my morning commute. Just wait until crews start setting girders in June. People will want to look at that, too.

On second thought, Tacoma, go back to admiring the new TNB. Nothing to see here.

A Day to Remember

By Emily Pace
WSDOT Olympic Region Communications

Flying in the night before after a 10-day vacation in Hawaii to kick-off my summer, it was hard to wake up at 6:30 a.m. the next morning to get ready for my first day of work. Tuesday was my first day as a summer intern for the Dept. of Transportation in Olympia.

Groggy-eyed after my six-hour flight I grabbed a venti latte and went on my way. When I arrived at the office, I realized it wasn't going to be typical work day. We were going on a field trip. Our destination: the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

We all were outfitted with the appropriate gear before leaving to tour the bridge. The dress code was a bright orange DOT vest, hard hat, heavy-duty gloves and a quite stylish pair of glasses. I have to admit, while it was a bit different from typical office dress, it was fun.

With the temperature reaching 80 degrees I could not have thought of a better day to take a field trip, and I do not think anyone would disagree with me.

Up at the bridge the tour began with a presentation giving a glimpse into the past of the existing bridge and its permanent place in history. We even walked under the old bridge (which was nerve wracking for some) and got a peek at the existing structure and took a moment to snap a few group pictures.

Over on the new bridge, crews were busy hand-painting cables. The engineers made a point to make sure the color of the new bridge was slightly different than the old to preserve the existing bridge's historical image.

The tour guides were great and it was amazing to see how excited people were becoming as opening day for the bridge is getting closer. Everyone in the office, myself included, enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about it and see it first-hand. The enthusiasm around me kept me going long after the three espresso shots wore off and the rest of the day flew by. People joked that it was all down-hill after today, but I find it hard to believe.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Is There A Warmer Welcome in the U.S.?

How would you like to be greeted with a bouquet of fresh vibrant flowers every time you arrived at home, or work, or to visit a friend or family member? For more than a decade the state of Washington has done just that—welcomed its citizens and visitors from the south, traveling by I-5 with nothing less than a vibrant and beautiful reminder that all are truly welcomed here.

I am referring to the Welcome to Washington sign on I-5 northbound just north of the Interstate Bridge and the Oregon state line. I am certain many of you have also admired this colorful array of plants as well. This year’s design is an arrangement of yellow and orange Marigolds paying tribute to the city of Vancouver’s 150th birthday.

I remember the impression the sign and plantings made upon me even as a young child after moving to the state of Washington with my family in 1989. I remember noting its beauty and vibrancy then as nothing I had seen in my limited travels as a youngster. I remember hearing my parents and their friends share buzz words about Washington being so much more “livable,” and offering a great “quality of life”—I listened very attentively.

As I reflect on the beauty of the plantings that surround the “Welcome to Washington” sign and its uniqueness comparatively to welcome signs in other states, I am drawn to its symbolism—reaffirming that indeed we do live in a beautiful state that offers a quality of life that is unsurpassed.

Is there another state that offers a “living welcome”? I am not aware of another. Not only is the arrangement of the plants colorful and artistic, its mere existence is the result of state pride, esprit de corps, and community collaboration. The plantings have truly become an evolutionary expression of the wonderful things our state represents and our gratitude as citizens for such a home.

History: The idea for the welcome sign was birthed in the legislature in 1989 in honor of the state’s Centennial celebration. The actual sign was constructed by the Washington State Department of Transportation’s SW Region Bridge Crew. The flag poles were donated by a local Veterans group, and the lighting was donated by a local electricians union. Since 1994, the Department of Transportation has maintained the sign and plantings, periodically polling the community for design submission ideas. Over the years, local Eagle Scout troops have helped clean and maintain the sign as well.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Traffic alerts and slow downs

It's Friday night and the Puget Sound roads are jammed. We all have places to go and people to see.

For several years we have suggested that travelers check their route before they leave home. We use a suite of tools to tell you about problem spots, including our web site, 5-1-1 telephone traffic information, e-mail alerts, highway radio transmitters and electronic message boards.

I can even get traffic flow map information on my blackberry device. It's not a statewide look yet, but we're heading that direction.

But in the end, all this information tells what we already know. Friday at 5 p.m. is a terrible time to try and get anywhere because we ALL want to get there at the same time. Even with the best information, we can't avoid gridlock when we all try and travel at the same time.

We are always looking for new ways to keep you updated on traveler information. What's missing? Got any ideas for how we can do this better? We'd love to hear your thoughts.

posted by Lloyd Brown, WSDOT communication director

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Electronic Tolling Comes to Washington – Are You Good To Go?

On April 25, we opened the doors to the Good To Go! customer service center, ushering in a new era in driving in state of Washington.

It was quite a feeling of accomplishment seeing so many people line up at the new customer service center in Gig Harbor, knowing how many hundreds of hours of work went on behind the scenes to get the program to this point.

For more than a year we have been telling people that when the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge opens this summer, Good To Go! will allow drivers to pay tolls without stopping at a tollbooth. Apparently that message was heard loud and clear.

During the first day of operation, over 2,100 people signed up for Good To Go! accounts, ordering more than 4,800 transponders. Over 86 percent of accounts were opened online. In fact, the response was so great that the web site was pushed to capacity and some people were not able to get through online. We had to issue a news release this morning encouraging people to keep trying.

The electronic tolling system uses a small transponder inside the vehicle’s windshield to link to the customer’s prepaid account. Each time a vehicle approaches the toll collection area, the antenna reads the transponder and the system automatically debits the toll from the Good To Go! customer’s account, allowing drivers to maintain highway speeds.

With the response so far, we think that Washington drivers are anxious to save time by using the electronic tolling system. Similar systems are operating across the country. What has been your experience with electronic tolls in other states (or other countries)?

Posted by Janet Matkin, Good To Go! communications

Friday, April 20, 2007

Tacoma Narrows Bridge Expansion Joint - Round 2

The second Narrows Bridge expansion joint is scheduled to travel across I-90 sometime around noon on Monday April 23. If all goes as planned, it will spend Monday night at the Rye Grass rest stop. Once they reach North Bend it will only travel during night hours. An overnight stay is planned in Federal Way and the expansion joint will arrive at the bridge site on Wednesday.

Just as before, we have made sure that you can track its progress as it crosses the state. The Web team took the time to check and double check the wiring on the GPS device and are going into this round with lessons learned and confidence that it will be up the entire time (crossing our fingers).

Site Usage
When the first expansion joint came across the state, we estimated over 10,000 people accessed the truck tracking page on April 11th and 12th . We are very curious to see how many of you will be interested this second time around.

We want your photos
An event like this doesn't happen very often and we want to include you in this historic occasion. Send us your photos of the truck along its route and we will display them on the map. WSDOT has created a Flickr account (see photos) that will allow us to plot photos of the second expansion joint and display them on our tracking map.

Happy Tracking...

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Alas, even the coolest technology has its limitations...

We, like many of you, had a lot of fun following the device across I-90 yesterday morning on its journey from Spokane to Tacoma, and were just as frustrated to find out that it was unable to communicate around 4:30 yesterday afternoon.

The device bases its location on satellite and cellular network coverage which we knew would be spotty across I-90 but we had our fingers crossed that the updates would be continuous enough to allow people to watch this historic occasion as the pieces travel to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge project that is nearing its completion.

Although quite fun to follow, this was really created as a management tool to help people make informed decisions to avoid the rig that unavoidably takes up two lanes.

Now we wait and see and hope the communication with the device will start up again while the truck is still traveling during the day. Once the truck reaches North Bend it will only travel at night, which won't be as fun to watch but will certainly make it much easier for those who need to get to where they need to without a big truck in the way.

In the meantime, we are going to the backup plan to manually update the site every 15 minutes to keep you up to date on where the truck is.

Update: Thursday, 12:30pm
The device started communicating again around 12:20 or so. Turns out some faulty wiring was causing the connection issues. We had just finished the manual update page and had it ready to go...funny how that works out sometimes.

Update: Friday, 12:15 pm
Device had trouble communicating again last night. Since it's in Federal Way today we had a local expert from Olympia drive up and examine the device and he discovered that bent copper clips on the power poles were the sole source of our troubles. A local Radio Shack provided a new connector for the fix and we are crossing our fingers that we won't have any problems with the device when the second truck comes into town.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Tacoma Narrows Bridge Expansion Joint

Bridges move. You may not always feel it, but bridges move. There are many engineering reasons for this, but engineers factor into their designs the need for a bridge to move.

The new Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the youngest sister to Galloping Gertie, who notoriously moved bridge engineering into the 21st century, has an expansion joint that weighs 100 tons and measures 70-feet long by 15-feet wide. The expansion joint makes it easier for bridges to move.

While the part is meant to help the bridge move, the part isn't moving. It was held at the state border on its way from the manufacturing plant in Minnesota to its final home in Tacoma.

That all should change this week. The experts are working out an appropriate trailer configuration and the expansion joint - along with its support caravan should roll toward Tacoma very soon. So many people have contacted us about this part that we have made sure you can watch its progress online.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Ready for the first pitch?

This week (March 25) WSDOT held a media event in Seattle for a "first pitch" of spring of a different sort. Our engineers were pitching what could potentially be the biggest story of the summer. Traffic headaches.

Thanks in large part to the 2003 and 2005 legislative funding packages, WSDOT has nearly 400 projects under construction this summer throughout the greater Puget Sound Region. This will be the summer of orange. Cones, barrels, paving equipment, earth movers. It's a veritable summer-long "Bob the Builder" festival.

We are working hard with contractors to do this work with the least amount of disruption to drivers. But the fact is that 400 projects scattered throughout the Puget Sound region will disrupt traffic.

We have some tools to help you navigate the chaos. You can check out our traffic conditions on-line. You can call 5-1-1 while on the road for real-time traffic updates. We even have a new "small" site for those who like to browse with their mobile devices.

This summer we'll ask for your patience. We'll ask for your help choosing different routes or deferring trips. We'll ask that you slow down and hang up the cell phone when driving through work zones.

In return, we'll wrap up work ask quick as we can. And, we'll open projects that improve traffic flow and make the roads safer.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Crews Spot Snow Doughnut

When I first got these pictures from our maintenance crews on the North Cascades Pass (SR 2o), I assumed they had used Photoshop and were pulling my chain. I called to verify the validity of the pictures. The crews promised that these were indeed real, and that snow doughnuts are a naturally occurring phenomenon. I had never seen this type of thing before, so I asked around the office and it appears no one else has either. I decided to send the pictures to the media, who also thought we used Photoshop.

According to Mike Stanford from our WSDOT avalanche team, snow doughnuts are a natural occurrence in nature. We do not build them. They form when there is a hard layer in the snow and is then covered by several inches of dense snow. Then you add a steep slope and a trigger, such as a clump of snow falling out of a tree or off of a rock face, and voila you have snow doughnuts.

As gravity pulls the clump down, the snow rolls down the hill, and 99.9% of the time the center of the rolling snowball collapses in on itself and creates what we call a "pinwheel". If it doesn’t roll down the
hill, then it will just slide, which is actually one of the mechanisms of a loose snow avalanche. But,
if the snow is the perfect density and temperature, it rolls around onto itself leaving the hole in the center, creating the doughnut-looking shape.

Stanford says he’s rarely seen it happen. The temperatures and snow conditions have to be just right. In 30-plus years of playing and working in the snow, this was the second time he had ever seen them. Snow doughnuts seemingly could grow very big if conditions permitted. The one seen in the photograph is about 24" in diameter.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Incident Response Saves the Day

A friend of mine recently bought a new car - one he spotted on the Internet and one he had to drive to Bothel to pick up. Even though his wife had bugged him for miles about stopping for gas, my friend's brand new car ran out of gas in the middle of I-5 on a rainy downtown Tacoma afternoon.

His two little girls started crying. His wife fumed in the passenger seat. My friend was truly stranded. While he raced through options trying to figure out what to do, a WSDOT incident response truck pulled up behind the stalled car. A five-gallon can of gas, and the day was saved.

That's the kind of good news story we love to hear. People really need help on the highways, and WSDOT's incident response fleet is doing what it can. Over the past five years, I've read stories of how our incident response staff have time and again shown up at exactly the right moment.

In addition to helping Washington State Patrol manage traffic during blocking incidents, incident response units routinely help provide fuel, change flat tires, provide minor vehicle repairs, push vehicles out of the road and clear road debris.

The latest WSDOT Gray Notebook (page 75) examines in more detail how the Incident Response Program is attempting to identify and remove traffic incidents as quickly as possible. The program's incident response units made 14,786 responses to incidents from October to December 2006, up roughly 13 percent from the same time period in 2004. That's up more than 50 percent from the same time period in 2002 when the program was expanded to include roving incident response units.

For more on the often strange ways that the incident response units are helping save the day, check out the WSDOT weekly report and its regular "Incident of the Week" feature.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

What are you doing to plan ahead for intense I-5 lane closures this August?

On February 21 we announced a 24/7 closure of several lanes of northbound I-5 from Aug. 10 to Aug. 29. During these closures crews will replace failing bridge expansion joints and repave the freeway from Spokane Street to I-90 just south of downtown Seattle. And on top of that we'll periodically close ramps in the project area, including the on-ramp from Spokane Street and the exit to I-90.

As you know, this is one of the busiest section of I-5 in the state and the closures could create monstrous backups. While we are working with local communities, businesses and transit agencies to help keep traffic moving during construction, we expect lengthy backups and significant delays.

We can only do so much to keep traffic moving. The math is pretty simple. During the first half of the 19-days we expect to close two of five lanes, cutting freeway capacity by 40 percent. In the second half we'll close three of five lanes, shrinking capacity by 6o percent. We need a corresponding amount of drivers to divert off I-5 just to get to normal traffic conditions. Throw in an collision or two or a stalled vehicle during the morning rush hour and that equation goes out the window. And don't forget the city streets and other alternate routes. They could be jammed as well.

The bottom line is, we're in this together and we need your help to get through these 19 days in August. We announced these closures six months in advance so drivers, transit users, businesses and other organizations have time to prepare for what's coming.

Below we've listed some of the steps drivers can start taking today to ease your commute and help other drivers. If you're a driver, what ideas work for you?

  • Plan a vacation between Aug. 10-29
  • Consider arrangements to carpool or vanpool
  • Practice taking the bus or train
  • Make arrangements to work from home or alternate worksite
  • Discuss altering your work schedule to come in earlier or later than normal
  • Try alternate routes
  • Keep up to date on the project by subscribing to WSDOT’s I-5 Seattle E-mail Alerts and by bookmarking WSDOT’s project Web page

Employer and organizations who rely on workers starting on time or can't afford packages and shipments showing up late also need to get ready. Think about what steps you can take and let us know what you're going to do.

We'll keep this blog alive through construction. We'll post regular updates, answer your questions and listen to your suggestions. We'll also be updating the project Web page regularly. For example, we just posted a Frequently Asked Questions page. There you will learn more about why this work is necessary, why a 19 -day closure is the smart choice and much, much more.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Years ago when I was a newspaper reporter in the Phoenix area, I heard about an incident at a local high school that was absolutely unbelievable. Dozens of ambulances were called to the school after bleachers on an athletic field collapsed. Someone had been quietly stealing pieces of the aluminum bleachers and selling those pieces for scrap.

In 2003, a WSDOT maintenance crew working on the Hood Canal Bridge caught thieves stealing metal parts from extra bridge pontoons moored in Port Gamble Bay in north Kitsap County. They went a step further and scoured local scrap yards in Kitsap and Pierce counties, eventually finding bridge parts in Tacoma. That led to convictions in Kitsap County Superior Court.

These are not victimless crimes. Fortunately, I don't recall there being any serious injuries at the school but the bleacher collapse story shows that the theft of materials is more than just a budget concern. Our guardrails and signal systems deployed on local highways are critical safety devices. And you and I are at risk if those devices are not working.

WSP and WSDOT are working together to target metal thieves. But we can't be everywhere. We need you to be the eyes and ears in your neighborhood and on your highways.

Here are a few things to look for:

  • Work zones are clearly signed. You should see a sign telling you a work zone is set up ahead.
  • Our WSDOT crews and contractors' trucks and equipment are clearly identified with logos - either the WSDOT's "flying T" or the contractors' name and logo.
  • Workers wear reflective clothing and hard hats.

Thanks for your assistance.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Growing a better roadway

One important strategy for holding down roadway maintenance cost is to properly control weed and vegetation growth along a highway.

Safety is a high priority at WSDOT. Vegetation, if left alone can grow out of control, blocking visibility (signs, traffic, wildlife) which could endanger motorists. Weeds must be controlled to avoid impacts on agriculture and native ecosystems. Pride of ownership and the beauty of Washington State are also important reasons why we try and manage roadside vegetation.

Traditionally we have used herbicides as one of the primary tools for roadside vegetation management. But the latest WSDOT Grey Notebook (December 2006) shows that we continue to reduce the amount of herbicides used, while still accomplishing our roadside maintenance goals.

In 2002, we used approximately 120,000 pounds of herbicide statewide maintaining vegetation. In 2006, that number dropped to just more than 40,000 pounds of herbicide statewide.

The majority of this reduction is the result of our effort in eastern Washington to minimize the area of vegetation-free ground along the edge of the highway pavement.

Last year, we adopted restrictions above and beyond federal and state legal mandates for herbicide usage. In addition, WSDOT is continuing to refine its policy and practices for vegetation management through an ongoing research project by the University of Washington. The study includes field trials on alternate vegetation control methods.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Accountability: Read It Now

WSDOT is building many high occupancy vehicle (HOV) direct access ramps throughout the Puget Sound area for Sound Transit. These allow buses, carpools, and van pools to directly access the HOV lanes from park and ride lots and local streets.

You might have driven by some of the large construction zones when WSDOT contractors were building these ramps. You might have wondered, why are they building ramps that will only serve a small percentage of the road users? Do they work?

According to the September 2006 Gray Notebook, direct access ramps improve safety, reduce congestion, save time, and increase reliability for both HOV and general-purpose traffic. Five major HOV lane direct access ramps in the Puget Sound area opened recently and another 14 are planned. Preliminary performance evaluations for the Lynnwood, Bellevue, Federal Way, and Ash Way projects show substantial travel time savings have been achieved at both Lynnwood (four to eight minute savings) and Ash Way (two to six minute savings), resulting in improved Sound Transit and Community Transit bus schedules.

More details on this topic and other key issues can be found in the September 2006 Gray Notebook. WSDOT publishes a Gray Notebook every quarter. The list of topics covered in past notebooks including bridge conditions, congestion on state highways, environmental programs and other performance related measurements and reports. If you are looking to see how well WSDOT is delivering projects, check out the Gray Notebook. If you want to learn about the rising cost of construction materials or road kill on state highways, find it in the Gray Notebook.

You can check out the new December 2006 Gray Notebook, available online in mid-February.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Can you hear me now? Good.

When it comes to government agencies, WSDOT must be among the most welcoming. A quick look at our on-line events calendar shows how WSDOT is constantly inviting neighbors and friends over to talk. Some times the conversation is lively, and some times it seems as if we can't get anyone to pay attention.

It is not easy to engage the public in a dialogue. Those of us who study such things work hard to come up with new ways of reaching communities. We utilize a toolbox full of tactics to reach people with information about decision-making - from basic newsletters mailed to specific neighborhoods to e-mail lists to electronic signs on roadsides.

But easily the most tried and true tactic for getting the public's thoughts on transportation projects is the open house.

Wait ... You might be thinking that open houses mean stale smelling school gymnasiums full of boring information boards and overly ernest government staff. But last year WSDOT tried a new way of reaching people, a "virtual" open house.

The I-90 Snoqualmie Pass project team knew that many of the people potentially most affected by changes to I-90, which snakes across the Cascade Mountains as the main route between Seattle and the great Inland Northwest, didn't live anywhere near the actual project boundaries. The route is used by truckers, tourists, students traveling to state universities, grandparents visiting family, skiers and mountain sports enthusiasts. Myriad interests pass through the project boundaries.

So how does one reach all these people? The virtual open house was a unique way of trying to reach more people and engage them in the process.

With so much information and entertainment vying for our attention, what does it take to make sure that your government is accountable and responsive to your concerns? How do you think we should be trying to share information about project designs, construction plans and environmental impacts?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Transportation and the Environment

It's easy to assume that a transportation agency is hardly concerned about environmental effects. But for the WSDOT, clean air and clean water are major topics.

Most of the information about our environmental programs are found at the agency web site. If you visit you can read information on Washington's Growth Management Act and environmental permitting, as well as our agency efforts to retrofit fish passages and to address other chronic long-standing roadway environmental deficiencies.

Capturing and treating surface water run-off is a major permitting issue and throughout Washington salmon streams run next to major roadways.

We also are taking steps across the organization to reduce green-house gas emissions. This just an abbreviated list, but it gives you an idea of how we are taking a OneDOT approach to our environmental to cleaner air.

Construction Best Practices
WSDOT is promoting idle reduction on public works projects through construction contract language. We also are pursuing recycling asphalt and concrete recycling to reduce energy consumption for new material creation and transportation.

Energy efficiency, anti-idling, and green technology
WSDOT No Idle Policy
WSDOT has adopted a new policy requiring WSDOT fleet vehicle operators to turn off their vehicles when not needed for safety reasons.

Switch to High Efficiency/Low Energy Yellow Flashing Lights to Reduce Idling
In the Puget Sound and Spokane County areas, WSDOT will retrofit fleet vehicles within the next several years to change out older incandescent lighting on vehicles and arrow sign-boards with energy efficient technology.

WSDOT Vehicle Equipment Efficiency
We are taking steps to improve fuel efficiency including retrofitting vehicles in Puget Sound and Spokane areas to add exhaust and crankcase catalysts to reduce diesel emissions; avoiding purchasing sport utility vehicles; and phasing out all vehicles/equipment manufactured before 1996.

“Incident Response” Partnership with Washington State Patrol
WSDOT is working with WSP to reduce time frames for highway blockages due to vehicle accidents. Incidence response trucks are deployed across the state to help motorists. Lower Energy Traffic Signals Of the 965 traffic signals owned by WSDOT, we have converted over 70 percent to light emitting diode (LED) technology since 1998. All new traffic and pedestrian lights are LED.

Uninterrupted Power Supply for Traffic Signals
We implemented six projects to allow traffic lights to continue to operate when power is out. This is to keep traffic flowing during power outages and reduce idling. WSDOT wants to make more of these upgrades but funding is lacking.

Building Energy Efficiency Improvements
Several building improvements have been made including adding timers on office light switches; removing lights in unused areas/wings of buildings; shortening the time frame when lights are automatically on in the building by one-half hour at applicable locations; making water conservation changes; replacing fixtures with more energy efficient bulbs; adding separate, smaller water heaters so large heating boilers not activated in summer months at applicable locations; and training all maintenance technicians to look for energy saving opportunities and efficiencies including tuning HVAC systems and replacing older systems.

While a 20 percent biodiesel pilot project continues to be suspended due to operational issues associated with plugged fuel filters. Washington State Ferries is working with Puget Sound Clean Air Agency and Washington State University to determine causes of clogging problems and hopefully identify solutions. The M/V Elwa has burned ultra low sulfur diesel for over two years and will continue to do so through a partnership with Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, Northwest Clean Air Agency, and the Washington State Department of Ecology. Additional vessels have started to use this fuel as it has become more available. Washington State Ferries is looking at route planning, loading and unloading, equipment modification, heat recovery, etc. strategies to gain fuel efficiency.

Highways, Infrastructure, and Construction
Park and Ride Lots and Direct Access Ramps
We continue to build and support facilities and partner with transit agencies to encourage and ease the use of transit.

Using 5 percent biodiesel blend with ultra low sulfur diesel at 16 maintenance facilities in central Puget Sound. We will expand use as more fuel becomes available and plan to move to 20 percent biodiesel when engine manufacturer warranties allow this fuel use.

Hydrogen Fuel Cells
We are piloting one fuel cell and would like to pair with solar generation to make the location self-sufficient. Need funding for capital investment.

Where possible, WSDOT uses solar panels to power flashing beacons and electronics that keep our system functioning.

Ethanol – Flex Fuel
WSDOT currently has 396 flex fuel-ready sedans and pickup trucks out a fleet of approximately 2,000 vehicles. At this time there are no ethanol WSDOT fueling stations available. When ethanol is more prevalent, our flex fuel vehicles will be able to take advantage of this greenhouse gas-reducing fuel.

Hybrid – Gas/Electric
WSDOT acquired its first hybrid pickup truck in 2006. WSDOT has purchased 13 hybrid sedans. The purchase of larger quantities of these higher efficiency vehicles is a challenge due to the cost differential of between $4,000 to $7,000.

Work Programs
Commute Trip Reduction Incentives
As with all state agencies, WSDOT activity promotes alternative/compressed work schedules, car/van pooling, transit/bike/walk, and telecommuting.

There's more. WSDOT is working with freight interests to reduce emissions on roads, rails, farms and at ports through participation in work groups that share information and develop projects that reduce emissions from diesel engines.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

The World (of Transportation) in a Grain of Rice

Rice demonstrates traffic congestion
Explaining how highways work is not always easy. We, drivers, typically view the world through our windshields and what makes sense from that perspective may not when considered from a broader system-wide perspective. For instance, ramp meters. WSDOT has utilized these devices to great effect throughout King County, for example. To the typical motorist, a ramp meter appears to just queue cars on surface streets, moving the backup from the highway to the local community. But to a transportation engineer, the process of controlling traffic flow makes all the difference between a highway functioning during the peak drive or failing.

So how do transportation experts explain complicated systems analysis in a way that makes sense to the rest of us?

Last September, Secretary Doug MacDonald announced the $1,000 Doug MacDonald Challenge, sponsored by the national Transportation Research Board, an organization with the National Academy of Sciences.

In his challenge, carried by the Seattle Times, Secretary MacDonald said he would give $1000 of his own money to the person who could best communicate to the public the concept of "through-put maximization," which means moving the maximum number of cars through a stretch of highway at the maximum speed.

After reviewing 258 entries, MacDonald selected Paul Haase, a Sammamish science writer with a thing for funnels, as the winner.

The Paul Haase solution
Haase suggested that anyone who has ever mixed up a recipe in the kitchen would understand traffic flow better through a simple experiment.

Here’s what you need to try this yourself:

  • Two funnels

  • Two liter-sized containers to place under the funnels

  • One liter of rice

  • One stop watch

To demonstrate his idea, Haase dumped one liter of rice all at once into the funnel and started the timer. Forty seconds (and several rice-sized traffic jams) later, all the rice was in the receiving container. Then, he took the same liter of rice, the same funnel and the same stop watch, but this time he poured the rice slowly and evenly into the funnel. Can you guess what happened? Twenty-seven seconds later, all the rice was in the receiving container. He shaved 13 seconds off his old time through gradual, controlled pouring.

The process of controlling the pour would intuitively suggest that the last "rice" in line was being slowed down. But in reality, that last "rice" in line actually arrived ahead of nearly all the rice that "jammed" the funnel during the uncontrolled pour.

What does this prove? According to Secretary MacDonald, it proves systems like ramp meters, which regulate traffic, save drivers time. It also proves future systems, like high occupancy toll lanes that use transponders to speed drivers through toll lanes, will make the most of our limited lanes.

We will continue to search for ways to talk about transportation systems. What do you think?