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?